Sunday, 30 August 2015

“He was as truly an emperor as any who have distinguished themselves in this office from the beginning” – the Death of Theoderic the Great

30 August 526, Theoderic the Great, Ostrogothic King of Italy, died at the age of about 72 in Ravenna.

“Þjóðríkr the bold,
chief of sea-warriors,
ruled over the shores of the Hreiðsea.
Now he sits armed
on his Goth(ic horse),
his shield strapped,
the prince of the Mærings“ (Reference of Theoderic the Great on the Rök Runestone in Sweden, early 9th century)

Theoderic the Great's mausoleum in Ravenna,
one of the most original and artistically valuable edifices of late Antiquity
- a painting created by the Norwegian architect Harald Sund (1876 - 1940) in 1913

It was a foregone conclusion. Early high medieval chroniclers identified Verona in Northern Italy, one of Theoderic’s seats of power, with Welschbern or Bern and the old Ostrogothic condottiero who ended up as King of Italy became Dietrich von Bern and the old heroic epics were transformed into Northern European romances to rival the French chansons de geste and the Arthurian cycle. Dietrich or Thidrek, the exiled Lord of Ravenna, gathers a group of heroes together, pretty much like the once and future king, they save damsels in distress, fight monsters and villains, there is treason of trusted relatives, magic swords and what not until the showdown comes and Dietrich confronts his evil uncle Ermanaric in the epic Rabenschlacht, literally the Battle of the Ravens or Ravenna, that ends in a bloody draw and the hero is forced to return to his liege lord Attila until he can finally reclaim his domains towards the end of his life. Theoderic alias Dietrich makes his first appearance in High Medieval Romance guise in the second part of the German Nibelungenlied from around 1200 as perfect knight and gentleman at Attila’s court who defeats and captures the last two Nibelungs standing, Siegfried’s murderers Gunther and Hagen. Few stories get as dramatic as the Lay of the Nibelungs and not many medieval epics as fantastic as the later Thidrekssaga and the heroes’ exploits told there, but even contemporary chroniclers pointed out that Dietrich and Theoderic the Great could rather not be the same person, since the latter was born about the time when Attila the Hun died in 453 and the historical Battle of Ravenna was actually fought some forty years later. In the considerably older Lay of Hildebrand, written down around 800 at the court of Charlemagne, Dietrich’s or Theoderic’s old master-at-arms Hildebrand returns home after the battle and he might well have served Atilla in his youth before he became the instructor and fatherly friend of a prince of a tribe that was part of the Hunnic confederation. The Lay of Walter, recorded about the same time consequently takes the same turn. Whatever might have happened over the next three hundred years with the tales of Theoderic the Ostrogoth to make him a legendary and almost unhistorical legendary figure is quite unclear, but it might be a condensation of several traditions of various Theoderics, a name the Völkerwanderungszeit and early Middle Ages certainly had no shortage of. The Visigoths had at least two, one of them died fighting Attila at the Battle of Chalons, there’s a son of Clovis the Frank and maybe there even was a local petty king named Theoderic or Dietrich ruling the city of Bonn, known to the Romans as Bonna, Verona or Bern, who finally ended up conquering and ruling from Rome, meaning Trier, for decades the Roman capital of the North and known to the locals under the name of the Eternal City itself well into the days of Charlemagne.

Dietrich von Bern capturing the Dwarf Alberic, Illustration by Johannes Gehrts (1883)

The existing sources concerning the historical Theoderic the Great are rather not as complete or reliable as one might hope for either. Most of the material is handed down by the notoriously fabulating Jordanes who created, more often than not, a version of the history of the Goths as he thought it should be rather than it was. However, he is supposed to have the studied the now lost body of Gothic history compiled by the more authoritative Cassiodorus who, in turn, collected and recorded documents and other papers from the Roman offices under Ostrogothic rule – and these give the impression of a rather well-ordered state business, peace and prosperity after a century of complete chaos and the end of the Western Empire in 476. In fact, Theoderic the Great was ordered by the Eastern Emperor Zeno to do exactly that. Bring order about in Italy ruled by Odoacer after he had deposed the last Western Roman ruler Romulus Augustulus and fell from grace at the court in Constantinople. The next barbarian invader of Italy got his marching orders in 488, set his 100,000 Ostrogoths, about 20,000 of them warriors, in motion and fought for five years until Odoacer lost the climactic Rabenschlacht or Battle of Ravenna and was forced to negotiate with Theoderic. Allegedly, the King of the Ostrogoths personally slew Odoacer during the peace talks and made himself the new King of Italy afterwards. Zeno’s successor Anastasius finally acknowledged him as head of state of the Roman West in 498. Under Theoderic’s rule the Ostrogoths did indeed become the dominant power of Western Europe and the Germanic tribes who had set up shop in the ruins of the old empire, rivalled only by Clovis’ Franks, kept at bay rather by diplomacy than by force of arms. When Clovis tried to push the Visigoths out of southern France and move his domains immediately to the Italian borders, Theoderic reacted with military operations though. He won but somehow his victory might have cost him Constantinople’s favour and there is the theory that Anastasius and Catholic Clovis might have allied against the heretically Arian Theodoric, but that might be a much later interpretation. However, towards the end of Theoderic’s rule, the eastern emperors began to develop again an intensified interest in the West and Western affairs and pointed out their role as head of the church and nominal overlords or Rome and the neighbourhood. Naturally, the Ostrogothic King of Italy conceived the claim as intrusion and reacted accordingly. Approving the execution of several good Catholics or at least non-Arians, most prominently the philosopher and theologian Boethius by the Roman senate did not exactly win Theodoric the favour of prominent church historians anyway, who usually have him gone to hell for heresy and martyring their saints, but at that point Theoderic had become a legend long since while basic Catholic disapproval of his rule did not do any good to the available contemporary sources.

Brick with the emblem of Theodoric, found in the temple of Vesta, Rome. It reads "+REG(nante) D(omino) N(ostro) THEODE/RICO [b]O[n]O ROM(a)E", which translates as With our master Theodoric the Good reigning in Rome [this brick was made]. (Quoted from Wikipedia)

There is the time-honoured rule of thumb that the first generation works terribly hard to amass a fortune – or an empire – the second is barely able to maintain it and the third usually gambles it away. After almost 30 years of ruling Italy, the old king died, probably of malaria or diarrhoea, leaving his domains more or less well ordered but just an underage grandson as heir and pretty soon the charming relatives, most prominently the boy’s mother, tripped over their own court intrigues and claims to rule Italy, providing the Eastern Romans under Justinian with a welcome occasion to begin the reconquest of Italy in 535. The campaigns ended with the last Ostrogothic king killed in battle almost twenty years later and Italy completely devastated, a state the peninsula would not recover from until at least the High Middle Ages if not the Renaissance. Besides few textual sources, tales and legends the Ostrogothic legacy is scarce and there is hardly any archeological evidence that they were there at all, apart from Theodoric’s magnificent mausoleum in Ravenna, certainly one of the most original and artistically valuable edifices of late Antiquity.

The end of the Ostrogoths in the Battle of Mons Lactarius, early in 553 with their last king, Black Teja making his last stand, as imagined by Alexander Zick (1845 - 1907) 

And more about Theoderic the Great on:

and the medieval legends about Dietrich von Bern and Thidrek on:

Friday, 21 August 2015

"Come to the edge," he said. - The Czech Cubo-Expressionist Bohumil Kubišta

21 July 1884, the auspiciously named Bohumil Kubišta, one of the founders of Czech modern painting, was born in the village of Vlčkovice, some 80 miles northeast of Prague.

“The whole is other than the sum of the parts" (Kurt Koffka, Gestalt psychologist, 1886 – 1941) 

Bohumil Kubišta: "Polibek Smrti" (The Kiss of Death, 1912)

During the first decade of the 20th century in Berlin, three students of the German philosopher and psychologist Carl Stumpf set forth to comprehend our ability to perceive and comprehend forms and provide them with a meaningful correlation to an apparently chaotic world. Around 1910, one of them, Max Wertheimer, had formulated his Gestalt theory in six laws that basically defined the parts human perception is composed from. Three years earlier, almost synchronously, in 1907, Picasso had, inspired by Cézanne's “Les Grandes Baigneuses“, Gauguin and African art, created a modern masterpiece that formally structured the space of the canvas and re-aligning the emerging dynamics and values, leaving perspective and meaning to the viewer of the painting. “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon“ was the prelude to arguably the most influential art form among the 20th century’s pluralism of styles, Cubism, and Picasso and his friend Georges Braques began to change the world of art forever. “The senses deform, the mind forms”, Braques wrote quite along the lines of Wertheimer and the Gestalt theory, when his and Picasso’s works entered their next short but highly contagious phase later dubbed “Analytic Cubism“. Closed, coherent forms were dissolved in favour of the form’s rhythm and light, since the Renaissance more often than not just another colour to simulate form, did play no role at all any longer while the painting itself emerged from the background and not vice versa. A revolution indeed and a revelation for the young Czech expressionist Bohumil Kubišta who met Braques and Picasso in Paris and carried the second major influence of his short artist’s life back home to Prague to become the major representative of a Czech peculiarity of the new movement - Cubo-Expressionism, faithful to the motto of “Die Brücke” Kubišta was a member of: “Anyone who directly and honestly reproduces that force which impels him to create belongs to us."

Expressionist self-portrait of the artist as a young man in 1908

Paris’ mouthpiece of Modern Art Guillaume Apollinaire promptly uttered that he’d envy the Czechs since they had a Cubist by birth, Kubišta, however, never quite followed the path of Analytic Cubism to the very end, nevertheless he and his colleagues made Prague the most important centre of Cubism outside of Paris. He saw, however, still quite the expressionist, the dissolution of form as a way to capture or at least approach the “spiritual essence” of a sujet along with that of the whole modern era. And while the Parisians attempted to dismantle perception, leaving the rest to the viewer and decidedly did not care about the narrative of the image, even still lifes came out as little dramas under Kubišta’s brush. No wonder, since Edvard Munch was a major formative influence after the academy-trained artist saw his exhibition in Munich in 1905 and believed that Modern Art was the next step after El Greco and Delacroix. Consequently, he studied colour theory and the harmonic and compositional principles of the Old Masters as well as those of the Moderns and found his spiritual home with the artists of “Die Brücke”. And while other Czech Cubists like František Kupka drifted towards abstraction beyond the blend of form’s fragmentation and Expressionism’s emotionality, Kubišta, almost naturally, began to flirt with Surrealism while the Great War descended upon Europe. Kubišta was called to the front lines like many other contemporary artists, survived the horror only to succumb to the global 1918 flu pandemic and died in Prague at the age of just 34, leaving a small but most interesting legacy behind.

Bohumil Kubišta: "Soldier" (1912)

And more about Bohumil Kubišta on:

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Wednesday, 19 August 2015

"Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!" - The Duel of USS "Constitution" and HMS "Guerriere" in 1812

19 August 1812, in the early stages of the War of 1812, the American frigate USS “Constitution” defeats the British frigate HMS “Guerriere” off the coast of Nova Scotia, earning the nickname "Old Ironsides".

“...the conclusion of course was, that she was either a French or an American frigate. Captain Dacres appeared anxious to ascertain her character, and after looking at her for that purpose, handed me his spy-glass, requesting me to give him my opinion of the stranger. I soon saw from the peculiarity of her sails, and from her general appearance, that she was, without doubt, an American frigate, and communicated the same to Captain Dacres. He immediately replied, that he thought she came down too boldly for an American, but soon after added: ' The better he behaves, the more honor we shall gain by taking him.'“ (William B. Orne, former master of the American merchant brig “Betsey”, aboard HMS “Guerriere” during the engagement)

The final stages of the naval duel, as imagined by the Saturday Evening Post's illustrator Anton Otto Fischer (1882 - 1962)

It was a hundred years before Admiral Mahan wrote his influential treatise on “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783“ and decades before the young United States established the Monroe Doctrine in the Americas, recognised their Manifest Destiny and played with the Europeans at empire building. In the earlies, Congress decided that a small navy was completely sufficient to protect trade and protect US interests abroad. In 1794, the construction of the original six frigates of the United States was authorised, more or less the entire US Navy at the turn of the 18th century, and they soon had their baptism of fire in the Quasi War against France in 1798 and against the Barbary States between 1801 and 1805 exactly along the lines they were designed for. Three of the frigates, USS “Constellation”, “Congress” and unlucky USS “Chesapeake” were pretty much conventional designs and wouldn’t have created a rush if they’d sailed under the Tricolour or the Union Jack, the other three though, “Constitution”, “President” and “United States” were radically different. Besides being smart sailers, the 200’ vessels were built from local American hardwoods, chiefly southern live oak, very expensive, durable, almost as hard as iron, made-to-last. With a weight of 1,500 tons they would rival the dimensions of a ship-of-the-line and even though designed as one-deckers, technically frigates, they were crammed to their rims with heavy artillery, 30 24 pounder long guns, battleship ordnance, for long range engagement and 32 32 pounder carronades for close combat on her spandeck, giving these uber-frigates a broadside weight of 950lb at short range, equalling that of a Seventy-Four. In short, they were stronger than anything faster or as fast as they were and faster than any stronger. And when war broke out with Great Britain in 1812, the Royal Navy, whose frigates had not lost a single ship-to-ship duel for the last ten years, was in for a nasty surprise.

Anton Otto Fischer's imagination of the "Chase of the Constitution" by a British squadron in July 1812

The declaration of War in June 1812 came more or less unexpectedly to Captain Isaac Hull who had assumed command of USS “Constitution” two years earlier. She lay at Annapolis, completed repairs after a year of cruising in European waters, took on a fresh crew and was not ready to sail for New York to join Commodore John Rodgers’ squadron there until early in July. Rodgers was already at sea by then and Hull promptly ran into a British task force under Vere Broke out to get him. A ship-of-the-line and four frigates were a bit too much, even for his uber-frigate, Hull tried to flee but was promptly becalmed, but so were the British, Hull ordered the boats put to sea and tow “Constitution”, the British did likewise and were lead in a stern chase for a whole day until a squall saved the American frigate. Hull made good his escape and reached Boston on 2 August. Informed by a Yankee privateer that one of Broke’s frigates was out there, Hull left harbour to give chase. It was James Richard Dacres’ HMS “Guerriere“, a French prize taken in 1806, rated 38 guns, 28 18 pounder long guns and 14 32 pounder carronades, throwing a broadside weight of 500lbs. Actually, “Guerriere“ had left Broke’s squadron for Halifax three weeks earlier for an urgent refit, but when “Constitution” came in sight, Dacre, eager to become the first Royal Navy captain to take an American frigate, had his ship cleared for action and closed in for the engagement. A few broadsides were exchanged at mid-range and when “Guerriere’s“ 18 pounder balls were seen to bounce off “Constitution’s” southern live oak bulwark, one of Hull’s hands was heard to cry out: "Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!", giving USS “Constitution” her famous nickname “Old Ironsides”. Even after realising how ineffective his gunnery was against his considerably larger enemy, Dacre did not break off the engagement, wasn’t an option, really, and both ships approached for close quarter fighting and a probable attempt of boarding each other, typical for frigate actions of the day. That brought “Guerriere“ into the range of “Constitution’s” carronades though, soon her mizzenmast was shot away, fell overboard and immobilised the British frigate, allowing Hull to cross her vulnerable bow and firing a few broadsides into her at half pistol-shot distance that travelled the whole length of the ship. “Guerriere’s“ bowsprit became entangled with “Constitution’s” mizzen, an attempt to board over it was abandoned in the heavy rolling seas, still “Constitution” poured 24 and 32 pounder shot into “Guerriere”, her fore- and mainmast fell, the ships broke free, and while “Constitution” prepared to renew combat, Dacres ordered a last gun fired from his battered frigate, signalling that he would give up. A boat brought a Yankee boarding crew over to “Guerriere”, they climbed on board and were greeted by Dacres, who could barely stand, wounded by a musket ball as he was, and when he was asked if he’d surrender, he still managed to answer: “Well, Sir, I don't know. Our mizzen mast is gone, our fore and main masts are gone - I think on the whole you might say we have struck our flag."

The final stages of the fight, HMS "Guerriere's"main mast getting shot away (American School, mid 19th century)

“It is not merely that an English frigate has been taken, after what we are free to express, may be called a brave resistance ... 'but that it has been taken by a new enemy, an enemy unaccustomed to such triumphs, likely to be rendered insolent and confident by them”, the “Times” wrote in reaction to the event. And indeed, the Bostonians were beside themselves with triumph when Hull sailed “Constitution” back home and so was the rest of the young American nation. Actually, he had planned to tow “Guerriere” along as a prize, but she was literally shot to a wreck and blown up after her survivors were taken on board of “Old Ironsides”. Less than half a year later, she would capture another British frigate, HMS “Java”, off Brazil, while USS “United States” took HMS “Macedonian” in October. British Admiralty forbade any single ship-to-ship actions with the uber-frigates after the events and it fell to Broke, the squadron commander of 1812 whom “Constitution” had so narrowly escaped, to restore the honour and the tradition of victory of the Royal Navy at least partially, when he defeated USS “Chesapeake” in HMS “Shannon” during a more balanced duel off Boston in June 1813. Dacres himself was honourably acquitted of all blame for the loss of his “Guerriere” in the customary court martial in Halifax that followed his exchange later that year and, as a small belated consolation for not becoming “made for life" as being the first RN captain engaging an American frigate, at least not the way he imagined it before the fight, sailors of HMS “President”, built along the lines of USS “President” captured in 1815, named a fortification they built at the mouth of Fish River in South Africa Fort Dacres in his honour.

USS "Constitution", now the world's oldest sailing ship still able to sail under her own power, firing a 17-gun salute in honour of Independence Day on 4 July 2014 in her home port of Boston (image found on:

And more about the duel of USS “Constitution with HMS “Guerriere” on:

Monday, 17 August 2015

A second Agincourt - The Battle of Verneuil in 1424

17 August 1424, John, Duke of Bedford, Henry V’s younger brother, won a surprising victory over a Franco-Scottish army twice the size of his own in one of the bloodiest battles of the Hundred Years’ War at Verneuil.

 “… there a horrible spectacle too see on the battlefield, the corpses in high, tightly packed heaps, especially where the Scots had fought. No prisoners were taken among them, and the heaps held the bodies of the dead English soldiers all mixed up with theirs.” (Thomas Basin, Bishop of Lisieux)

A late 15th century depiction of a Hundred Years' War battle - probably Agincourt or Verneuil

One of the most persistent myths about the Middle Ages is the weight of plate armour and the movement restrictions inflicted on its pitiable knightly wearer. Poor things couldn’t mount their horses without the help of at least two squires or a crane and were as good as dead when they fell off since they couldn’t raise on their own and all that. The notion is basically nonsense. Mail was worn since the Iron Age to protect warriors from sword slashes, axe blows and spear thrusts. It was always more or less useless against an arrow shot at close range from the compound bows, the ones the peoples of the Eurasian steppes and the Middle East used. But that’s what shields were for. With the advent of new fighting techniques like using the lance from horseback couched under the arm instead of just stabbing or throwing the thing, feet placed stable in stirrups and adding the weight of the charger to the punch, something had to be done in terms of defensive arms and protection. Along with the ability to manufacture longer and heavier swords that were easily able to cleave through mail, it was, in the west, still a concern of a comparatively small warrior elite. Hand-and-a-half swords, war horses and a full suit of mail armour were unbelievably expensive, but when commoners discovered easily produced and deadly ranged weapons like crossbows and longbows and learned to fight in formation with pikes, things were about to change. Since the High Middle Ages, more and more pieces of steel plate were added to suits of mail to further protect vital zones. The late 14th century finally saw the arrival of the iconic full plate armour. Weighing between 30 to 50 pounds, field armour was individually fitted to its wearer with intricate, overlapping parts that allowed for almost full mobility, on horseback and on foot, fighting, climbing walls, athletics and what not. In close combat, special moves and special weapons developed, like war hammers and pollaxes with their spikes, concentrating energy to a single, small focus that might penetrate the steel plates or, at least, cause blunt trauma when the hammer or axe heads hit, but at least crossbow bolts and even bodkin-headed arrows shot from a longbow usually would not pierce it. Nonetheless, an energy level of about 80 joules, almost 200 pounds concentrated in the punch of an arrowhead, designed to smash through armour, delivered at a rate of up to 10 arrows per minute in volleys known as “arrow storms”, flattened anything else, less-well armoured men and war horses, and would, of course, find sooner or later, armour joints and slits in helmets and break a charge of knights, even if they wore suits of Gothic plate armour made by the famous workshops in Milan or Nuremburg. But not if the heavies closed in fast and the archers did not have the time to shoot their volleys, as it happened at Verneuil.

mid-15th to early 16th century suits of Gothic and Maximilian plate armour, on display at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna* 

The Battle King had died in 1422 at the age of 35, all of a sudden, from dysentery. His son, Henry VI, now King of England and France after his father’s victory at Agincourt, was not yet three years old and affairs on the continent were managed by his uncle John, Duke of Bedford. Young Henry’s other uncle, the Dauphin, son of mad Charles VI and recognised as King of France everyplace where no English troops stood, saw an opportunity to pay House Lancaster back, reminded the Scots of their Auld Alliance, and they almost fell over themselves to fight the hated English and sent 6,000 men under the Earl of Buchan to support him. Unfortunately, most of them perished at Cravant in 1423, but 6,000 fresh volunteers arrived a year later, led by Buchan again, along with Archibald, Earl of Douglas and joined the Dauphin’s cause. The latter hired 2,000 Milanese and other Lombard mercenaries, horsemen armoured with the best their workshops at home could provide and together with 8,000 local Dauphinists, the French were ready to strike at Bedford in Normandy. They took the town of Verneuil on the Norman border on 15 August and two days later, Bedford arrived with 8,000 men. The Franco-Scottish army met them on a plain a mile north of the town and while the English archers were still busy driving their customary wooden stakes into the hard, sun-baked ground, the Milanese charged. They closed in on the archers before they could properly shoot their volleys and the arrows that flew simply glanced off the superb Italian plate and did not even penetrate at point-blank range. The English right wing was trampled down and slaughtered, but the mercenaries simply rode on to the English baggage train at the back to plunder. Even so, the battle seemed lost, but Bedford rallied his men-at-arms and knights, fighting on foot as usual, drove back the French infantry to Verneuil while Salisbury on the left wing fought a hard fight against the Scots, left alone by the Dauphinist’s other Lombard mercenary cavalry contingent who had joined the Milanese in plundering. With the French driven from the field, Bedford had his hands free to support Salisbury against the Scots who made a desperate last stand but were finally slaughtered. Bedford’s remaining archers chased the Italian mercenaries who had absolutely no mind to lose their expensive destriers or get their valuable armour dented by English arrows and quitted the field. The Battle of Verneuil was over and Bedford had won another, surprising major victory against the odds. It would be the last one. Verneuil was one of the bloodiest battles of the Hundred Years’ War, with 4,000 Scots, 2,000 French and 1,600 English dead, but while it proved to be a temporary setback for Charles the Dauphin, the tables began to turn when the English were forced to abandon the Siege of Orleans, the key to southern France, mainly by the efforts of a young girl with a vision from Domrémy in Lorraine.

Left standing at Verneuil but was finally crowned as King Charles VII, the Dauphin of France
(Portrait by Jean Fouquet, c 1450)

* photo taken by Stephan Brunker and found on

And more about the Battle of Verneuil on: