Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Morbus Gothicus – King Reccared and Theology in Visigothic Spain

31 May 601, Reccared, first Catholic king of Visigothic Spain, died an uncommonly natural death in his capital of Toledo at the age of about 40.

“After Amalaric, Theoda was ordained king in the Spains. But when he was slain they raised Theodegisil to the throne. When he was dining with his friends and was very cheerful, suddenly the lights were put out in the dining hall and he was slain by his enemies, being thrust through with a sword. After him Agila became king. For the Goths had formed the detestable habit of attacking with the sword any one of their kings who did not please them, and they would appoint as king any one that took their fancy.” (Gregory of Tours),_by_Mu%C3%B1oz_Degrain,_Senate_Palace,_Madrid.jpg
"The Conversion of King Reccared" by Antonio Muñoz Degrain (1888)    

King Clovis of the Franks was not exactly known as a family man. Neither were his four fine sons, being at each other’s throats on a regular basis. And the tale, as handed down by the venerable Gregory of Tours, of a Frankish invasion of the Visigothic kingdom in southern France purely for the reason that Amalric, Arian king in Narbonne, beat his wife Chrotilda, Clovis’ daughter, black and blue because she would not renunciate her Catholic faith very probably belongs to the realm of fable. However, in 531, Chrotilda’s brother Childebert, the Merovingian king of Northwestern France, marched into Visigothic Languedoc, defeated Amalric in battle, the latter fled to Barcelona and was murdered there by his own nobility while Chrotilda, saved from the clutches of the heretic Arian fiend, conveniently died on the Frankish return march to Paris. Or so the story goes, told by Gregory of Tours about 40 years later, when King Reccared, King of the Visigoths in Toledo, already had become a good Catholic and the conditions of an almost annual change of power, ridiculed as “morbus gothicus”, the Gothic disease, by an anonymous Frankish 7th century chronicler were over with the accession of power by Reccared’s father Liuvigild in 568. However, the “morbus gothicus” had claimed a last victim, Reccared’s older brother Hermengild. Later venerated as a saint, Hermengild fell out with his Arian father, allegedly over religious matters, converted to Catholicism, allied himself with the Byzantines, who had carved out a sizeable portion of the eastern Peninsula from Cartagena to Málaga during Justinian’s Reconquista, plunged Visigothic Spain into a civil war, was captured by Liuvigild and Reccared and died in prison 585. Allegedly martyred by his own father for refusing to return to Arianism, but that might very well be a footnote from the late Middle Ages.

"The Triumph of San Hermenegildo" by Francisco Herrera the Younger (1654)

When the Visigoths obviously had become religious exegetes in mid-6th century, they had a long way behind them, from the prelude of the Völkerwanderung and the annihilation of an entire Roman army at Adrianople in 378, sacking Rome under Alaric in 410 and being in the lead with their ally Aetius in the epic defeat of Attila the Hun at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451. The beginning of the end of the Visigoths came with Clovis and the Battle of Vouillé in 507. The victorious Franks took their possessions in southern France around Toulouse, drove them behind the Pyrenees where the Visigoths established their new kingdom with Toledo as capital between the poles of the Germanic Suebi in the Northwest, the unruly Basques in the North, the Byzantines in the Southeast, alleged tensions with their Catholic Roman subjects and their own nobility fighting each other on a regular basis. King Liuvigild handled the immediate military threats to his kingdom on the Peninsula, fought the Byzantines to a standstill, conquered the Suebi and subdued the Basques, at least for a while, and with his conversion to Catholicism, his son Reccared would defuse the most pressing domestic and foreign threats from Romans and Franks, even though his wedding plans with several Frankish princesses came to nought and his son and successor Liuva was fathered upon a local girl, allegedly of low birth. In the meanwhile, Reccared had his hands full with ordering his domains and seemed to have changed from Saul to Paul, held one of the Councils of Toledo and allegedly issued some rather unsavoury anti-Semitic orders, odd, since anti-Semitism didn’t play a significant role in the Western Mediterranean anywhere else during the 6th century and the ruling Germanic warrior elite as well as most post-Roman local nobles simply tolerated or ignored Jews everywhere else. However, the issue came up during the Middle Ages and would be a major focus of Queen Isabella, King Ferdinand and their successors after their Reconquista ended in 1492. Spanish royalty saw themselves as heirs to the Visigothic kings and princes of Spain. The orthodox ones only, of course, like Reccared and his brother Hermengild.

A mid-7th century Visigothic votive crown

Succession in title or not, the Visigothic layer in most of Spain is rather thin, barring the Kingdom of Asturias in the Northwest, founded by the Gothic noble Pelagius seven years after the Islamic conquest in 711. Archaeological finds are not exactly common in the major settlements, a few church fundaments, a few graves and coins, and only two cities, Reccopolis in Guadalajara and Victoriacum in the North, seem to have been founded by the Goths. There are, of course, the wonderful votive crowns from the Treasure of Gurrazar, found near Toledo and the legend that the nobility’s “sangre azul”, the blue blood, comes from the Visigoths’ blue-blooded veins beneath their pale skins. Of their language, not even twenty words are traceable in modern Spanish. However, several late Roman and early medieval chroniclers and church fathers obviously wrote somewhat excessively about the three centuries of Visigothic rule in Spain, especially about their heresies after the Fall of Toulouse in 509 and Reccared’s conversion to Catholicism. 16 Councils of Toledo are documented for the 7th century with decrees and decisions that, more often than not, appear rather High Medieval and are shaped along the lines of the religious conflict that began with the Islamic conquest decades after the Councils allegedly took place. If these Councils were inspired by divine providence or had been edited later, by well-known Frankish and Roman forger’s workshops, subsumed under the nom de plume “Pseudo-Isidore” and Late Medieval and early Modern necessities of the Reconquista, is open to debate. But whether the Visigoths really indulged themselves in the finer points of Catholic exegesis or not during the 7th century, their obviously proto- or early feudal army went to the dogs and the decrees the Kings Wamba and Erwig issued in this regard during the second half of the 7th century seem real enough. Instead of intriguing at court or discussing theology, the kings ordered their nobles to take up arms every now and then themselves, preferably not against each other, instead of just arming a few of their serfs. The decrees didn’t achieve very much, though. When the Arabs came, they mobbed the floor with what passed for a Visigothic army and their last king, Roderic, fell in the Battle of Guadalete in the summer of 711.    

And more about the Visigoths in Spain and King Reccared on:

And the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals:

Saturday, 30 May 2015

"Only the Bohemians could defeat the Bohemians" - the Battle of Lipany and the end of the Hussite Wars

30 May 1434, twenty miles east of Prague, the Hussite Wars virtually ended with the Taborites’ and Oprhans’ defeat at the Battle of Lipany.

“It is better to die well than to live badly” (Jan Hus)
Ludwig Marold’s imagination of the Battle of Lipany (1898)

What happened in Bohemia was a microcosm of events that kept the whole of Central and Western Europe in suspense at the turn of the fifteenth century. A storm was brewing from Essex and Kent to Catalonia and the fringes of the Transylvanian forests out East. The authority of the church was seriously questioned, her prerogative of interpreting the world was socialised by translations of the Bible from Latin into the languages the people spoke, military supremacy of the mounted nobility was toppled after several crushing defeats inflicted on Europe’s chivalry by commoners with cheap commoners’ weapons, bows and pikes, along with the invention of gunpowder while manufacturing and trade had become at least as important as basic food production in vast feudal holdings, giving rise to a new, educated, rich and independently-minded social class, the burghers of the cities. In places like Flanders, Northern Italy and Bohemia, ruled by foreign feudal empires, the newly found importance gave rise to something along the lines of a national identity, the idea of self-rule and the willingness to fight for it. Burning new national heroes at the stake to dam the rising tide was generally a decidedly stupid idea under the circumstances. When the future Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Hungary invited the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus to the Council of Constance in 1414 to discuss matters under a guarantee of safe conduct but went back on his word and had Hus executed a year later, unrest broke out in Bohemia immediately. Catholic priests were driven from their parishes, angry letters between Sigismund and the local nobility went back and forth and Imperial councillors were thrown out of the window at the Hradčany during the first Defenestration of Prague in 1419. And then the Bohemian reformers formulated their manifesto, the Four Articles of Prague: Freedom to preach the Word of God, celebration of the Lord's communion under both kinds (bread and wine to priests and laity alike, the chalice was less and less offered especially to commoners, hence “Calixtines” the name of a group of local reformers), no secular power for the clergy and equal punishment for the mortal sins without considering the social position of the criminal. By 1420, the Hussite Wars between the various groups of Bohemian reformers and the Holy Roman Empire and its vassals were already in full swing.

Master Jan Hus Preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel“ by Alfons Mucha (1916)

The next 15 years were the death throes of the Middle Ages in Bohemia and the neighbouring countries of Poland, Germany and Hungary. Five crusades were led into the region to punish the heretic Hussites and all of them were repulsed, first by the leader of the most radical of the Hussite factions, the Taborites, Jan Žižka z Trocnova, who demanded to be skinned and have his pelt put on a drum to call his children to battle even after his death in 1424. They called themselves the Orphans afterwards and were led by Black Žižka’s lieutenant Prokop, later called Prokop Veliký, Prokop the Great, who perfected his former master’s innovative tactics to fight and defeat the Imperials and led his troops on far-ranging raids, known as spanilé jízdy, beautiful rides, deep into Imperial territory, quite like Edward the Black Prince and others with their Chevauchées during the Hundred Years’ War, fought 1,000 miles to the west at the same time, with the same gory results. The Hussites’ recipe for success against the Imperials and other crusaders, over and above their dedication and discipline was their innovative tactics, chiefly artillery firing out of their mobile fortifications, the vozová hradba or wagenburg, basically arranging their war wagons into a laager and shooting charges of heavy cavalry to pieces. Then, the Hussites would burst out of the formation and take the broken knights and their demoralised infantry support in the flanks and club them to death with their favourite weapon, the war flail. In contrast to chivalric warfare of the age, they were not interested in capturing nobles for later ransoming. The Hussites were known for taking no prisoners. Accordingly, the crusaders ran as soon as they saw the banners of Prokop the Great’s Orphans and heard them sing their battle hymn “Ktož jsú boží bojovníci" ("Ye Who are Warriors of God") at Domažlice in 1431.

A contemporary depiction of a Hussite laager

After 15 years of brutal war had devastated much of Southern Central Europe, it had become obvious to Emperor Sigismund that the Hussites were probably not to be beaten in the field, at least not by Imperial and papal troops, and negotiations started in earnest until the more moderate Hussite wing, the Utraquists or Calixtinians, returned into the folds of Mother Church and promptly started to fight the radicals, Prokop’s Orphans and the other Taborites. At Lipany then, two equally strong laagers faced each other and the Utraquist’s leader Diviš Bořek of Miletínek came up with a rather simple ruse de guerre. He feigned flight and Prokop the Great, brilliant commander and victor of the battles of Ústí nad Labem and Domažlice that he was, fell for it. He left the security of the laager, pursued the apparently fleeing enemy and was promptly charged by Bořek’s heavies, hidden so far, overrunning the surprised Orphans, out of formation in the open and breaking into the unclosed wagenburg. Prokop and his lieutenants died while making a last stand there and those of the Orphans and Taborites who surrendered were burned afterwards. Against arrangements, goes without saying. The Imperial’s mopping-up actions after the battle lasted over the next five years and the last die-hards were burned or, like Jan Roháč z Dubé hanged in Prague and imperial and papal order was restored, while once prosperous Bohemia was a wasteland for generations until the religious and social conflicts erupted again, marked by Second Defenestration of Prague in 1618 and the following Thirty Years’ War with even worse consequences for Central Europe.

And more about the Hussite Wars and the Battle of Lipany on:

And a rendition of “Ktož jsú boží bojovníci" can be seen here:


Wednesday, 27 May 2015

"Never laugh at live dragons" - The Dragon of Henham or Strange News out of Essex from 1668

27 May 1668, the Dragon of Henham or “Flying Serpent” was seen by several witnesses in Essex.

“The place of his abode and where he hath been oftentimes seen, is called Henham, but most commonly Henham on the Mount, the town standing upon a hill, having many fair farms and granges belonging to it, in one of which named The Lodge, near to a wood called Birch-wood, by reason of the many birches growing there, in a pasture-ground close by the same, hath this monstrous Serpent been often seen upon the sides of a Bank, beaking and stretching himself out upon the same at such time asSol did parch the earth with his refulgent beams.” (Anonymous: “The Flying Serpent, or: Strange News out of Essex” (1669))

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s idea of a dragon (c 1768)

Whatever made quite a lot of people across the globe come up with the rather universal idea of giant serpent-like creatures roaming the earth, either abducting aristo maidens or bringing rain and fertility, is still a mystery all by itself. That live dinosaurs might have inspired all the dragon myths and legends is nonsense, of course, even though fossil finds from various stages of Earth’s history might be behind some local variant of the myth, but the same could be true for live animals, from crocs and monitor lizards to olms, seen as the spawn of giant underground dragons in places like Slovenia. A psychological approach towards the origins of dragons and their appearance in tales at least as old as humanity’s ability to read and write itself seems somewhat more appropriate, since it is quite close to some folks’ urge to dress up facts in more elaborate garments or tell tales altogether. Be that as it may, in the earlies of natural science, when the local potentate’s or Renaissance man’s Wunderkammer was fed with dragon artefacts from every corner of the world that were actually dried parts of large rays or bats or lizards and bones that once had belonged to God knows what and sometimes even more or less obvious fabrications from all of the above. Benevolently, they were seen as attempts at reconstruction rather than the hoaxes they were, the next best thing before science could actually prove the existence of dragons. And while all kinds of previously half-mythical animals arrived in Europe’s capitals during the 16th and 17th century, rhinos, jumbos, giraffes and what not, captured dragons seemed to be long in coming. But some made at least a guest appearance in the countryside, such as the Henham Dragon.

Contemporary Woodcut showing “The Flying Serpent, or: Strange News out of Essex (1669)“

A length of 9’ might not seem that impressive, compared to the giants of the epics like Fafnir or Smaug, rather more along the diminutive serpentine lines of the poor things that get speared by St George in Renaissance art. However, if a 9’ flying object bears down on a solitary horseman riding through the lush Essex countryside in the merry month of May all of a sudden, hearts may easily sink in one’s riding boots. Thus, the first recorded victim of the Henham Dragon rode hell for leather back to where he came from, probably the hamlet of Saffron Walden and gathered his friends, probably over a pint or three, to warn them of the imminent reptilian danger down the road. Said danger, in the meanwhile, “lay on a hillock beaking (basking) himself again in the sun”, two passers-by saw the creature and described it “as near as they could guess 8 or 9 foot long, the smallest part of him about the bigness of a man's leg, on the middle as big as a man's thigh, his eyes were very large and piercing, about the bigness of a sheep's eye, in his mouth he had two row of teeth which appeared to their sight very white and sharp, and on his back he had two wings indifferent large, but not proportionable to the rest of his body, they judging them not to be above two handfuls long, and when spreaded, not to extend from the top of one wing to the utmost end of the other above two foot at the moll, and therefore altogether too weak to carry such an unwieldy body. These men though armed with clubs and staves, yet durst not approach to strike this serpent, neither it seems was the serpent afraid of them, for railing himself upon his breast about the heighth of two foot, he stood looking on them as daring them to the encounter.” Of course it was bound to happen. The locals gathered their pitchforks, torches and old Civil War gear, drove the Serpent into the next wood and, at this point, the anonymously published leaflet “The Flying Serpent”, the only source describing the incident, ends, but hope remains that the creature could somehow make its escape, across the border, to the continent or wherever flying serpents find refuge.

Had a good sense of humour: William Winstanley

England has, for whatever reason, the largest proportion of local dragon legends in Europe, even more than traditional dragon countries like Wales, France and Germany. The tale of the “Flying Serpent” from Essex is just one of the most recent and one that is not immediately connected to local folklore. In Saffron Walden, however, lived a somewhat accomplished author, who sometimes published under his own name, William Winstanley, and sometimes under the nom de plume Poor Robin and had, allegedly, a good sense of humour. There is a local tale that tells of Poor Robin and his nephew Henry who were seen early in 1668 at making the model of a dragon from canvas and wood and all the witnesses who claimed to actually have seen the Serpent were friends of Winstanley who might well be not only the author of the Henham hoax but the leaflet as well. At least the Serpent and the locals on the woodcut accompanying the anonymous leaflet are all smiling rather broadly. But who knows, the dragon lives on in local legend and even if it didn’t get an own article on Wikipedia yet, the Flying Serpent is very welcome the build its nest in the outdoor enclosures of the Wunderkammer to be wondered and marvelled at, as one of the places where such creatures indeed find refuge.

And more about William Winstanley (without a serpent reference, though) on:

and more about the Henham Dragon on a charming local website:


Monday, 25 May 2015

"But the suit I wear is my work attire, and nothing else" - the animalière and realist artist Rosa Bonheur

25 May 1899, the French animalière and realist artist Rosa Bonheur died in her atelier and now museum of Château de By in Thomery, some 50 miles south of Paris.
“The epithets of imbeciles have never bothered me.“ (Rosa Bonheur)

Rosa Bonheur’s most famous work "La foire du cheval" (The Horse Fair), a scene from the life on the horsemarket in Paris, between 1852 and 1855, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

If you will, the history of realistic animal painting stretches back to the Paleolithic period. Tens of thousands of years ago, some remarkable people painted their vicinity’s Ice Age fauna on cave walls as realistically as they could, often with an astonishing skill that gives us epigones a vivid image of the long extinct animals that once populated Europe, cave lions, woolly rhinos, Irish elks and what not, even if we can only speculate about their intentions beyond pure desire of artistic expression. A realistic approach, however, especially on depicting animals, was cherished in ancient Greek art, experienced a renaissance during the 15th and 16th and climaxed during the Age of Enlightenment, when scientific aspects superseded the cabinet-of-curiosities focus many animal painters and draughtsmen and –women had preferred. And while the art of scientific illustration of plants and animals peaked for more than 250 years until photography took over for good at the dawn of the 20th century, a new demand of realistic animal depictions during the 1750s, probably spawned by Great Britain’s squirearchy and rooted in the pride they took in the livestock they bred, especially their horses. A trend that kept cohorts of more or less talented artists in wages and bread for decades. And in the meanwhile, for completely different reasons, a new style of painting emerged in France 1830s, pioneered by Gustave Courbet and a counterdraft to the remote imagery of art-wise prevalent Romanticism: Painting things as they were, in the vicinity or out in the open, without dressing them up and overcharging them with myths and symbols and tender emotions. Sir Edwin Henry Landseer was the most prominent of animal painters of that period, caught between the extremes of artistic struggle to achieve expression in the new style along the lines of Courbet’s Barbizon School, pure commercialism and undistinguished kitsch. Landseer’s most notable French contemporary specialising in animal painting didn’t care a damn about that area of tension and discarded most conventions anyway.

Rosa Bonheur’s "Labourage Nivernais", “Ploughing in the Nivernais“ from 1849, now at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris 

It says a lot about Parisian society of the post-Napoleonic world that it allowed not only for one but two men’s clothing-wearing, cigar-smoking female artists who defied social norms and prevailed nevertheless with considerable public recognition and success: George Sand and Rosa Bonheur. And while writing was not exactly Rosa’s provenience, allegedly, her mother tried to cope with Rosa’s obvious legasthenia by giving her daughter access to the alphabet in making her draw animals for every letter, her sketching and painting skills were encouraged already at an early age in her unconventional family. Her father was a mediocre landscape painter but a fierce socialist, adhering to the somewhat quixotic movement of the count de Saint-Simon. Saint-Simonists, however, believed in the equality of sexes and Rosa, raised in this spirit, soon surpassed her two equally animal-painting and -sculpting brothers in artistic skill and expression along with that of most of her contemporaries in the field of genre painting she specialised in. Academy-trained, Rosa achieved plenty of success with her realistic rendition of a horse fair, created between 1853 – 1855, still pregnant with the Romantic horse sense of a Géricault and Delacroix, but realistic enough to win over the heart of even the most obdurate of English horse enthusiasts. Thus, the audience that actually bought her pictures and allowed for her bohemian lifestyle and the continuous production of conventionalised if excellently executed paintings came from that venue of life. And since the heirs of England’s 18th century horse-loving squirearchy, along with Queen Victoria herself, certainly would have raised more than an eyebrow if they had deigned to notice that one their favourite artists was, well, not only a woman, what? but wore men’s clothing, smoked in public, was unmarried and lived together with another female for all her life.

The artist with one of her favourite subjects at the age of 33 by Edouard Dubufe

enough, the first device for displaying motion pictures was called a zoopractiscope and showed animal movements at least in public displays and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s first attempt of a film showed the race horse Sallie Gardner, on display at the California School of Fine Artists in 1880. With the horse lovers’ and cattle breeders’ appreciation and necessity for painted pictures of horseflesh and Texas Longhorns becoming a pure status symbol and adherence to a tradition and technology found its way into the cabinet-of-curiosities-like viewing habits of the masses, realistic animal painting was on a steady decline while Symbolism and Expressionism took over. When Rosa Bonheur died, her works had already become museum art and her last domestic partner, the American artist Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, finally bequeathed Rosa’s artistic estate to the French State. Conventionally as it was, however, Rosa Bonheur’s work along with her unconventional lifestyle was a milestone in the public appreciation of female artists.

Anna Klumpke’s portrait of Rosa Bonheur (1898)

And more about Rosa Bonheur on: