Lecture: St. Hild: her monastery and her legacy

Openwork decoration from Whitby (courtesy of Christane Kroebel)

Hild was the first abbess of the Streoneshalh/Whitby monastery from 657 AD until her death in 680 AD. Within a few years, it rose to prominence as a centre for learning and for hosting the Synod of Whitby to decide the dating of Easter. Although few literary and documentary references to Hild and to Whitby are extant, the monastery continued to play an important part in the political life of Northumbria during the next three to four decades and is likely to have been an economic force afterwards. By the second half of the ninth century, all activity ceased and did not resume until after the Norman Conquest, when a Benedictine monastery was founded dedicated to St. Peter and St. Hild. This talk will trace Hild’s role and importance in the seventh century and her appeal throughout the Middle Ages and into the 21st century.

Small find from Whitby Abbey

Our speaker, Christiane Kroebel, is an independent researcher based in Whitby, North Yorkshire. She is hon. editor of Forum: the Journal of Council for British Archaeology Yorkshire, Whitby Museum curator for the abbey collection (volunteer) and was formerly hon. librarian and archivist of the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society (2000-13). She studied at Durham University (History MA, 2003) and the Catholic University of America, Washington DC (Library and Information Science MSc, 1983). Her research interest is Anglo-Saxon history but more recently she has broadened her scope into medieval and early modern Whitby and vicinity.

This will take place at 2pm at Swarthmore Leeds on Saturday 10th February. Non-members are welcome but a donation to the cost of running the section would be appreciated.

Medieval Section Lecture – 13th Jan 2018 at 2 pm


Saturday 13th January,  2pm at Swarthmore.

“Mirrors for Men?” a technological and cultural comparison of European and Japanese medieval swords  by Stefan Maeder.

The Japanese Sword is often praised as the apex of the swordsmith’s craft. A direct comparison between European medieval swords, treated according to the traditional Japanese method of sword-polishing, and Japanese counterpart yielded a range of new results. These encompass a better understanding of technological and cultural common points, as well as of differences between the most prestigious and symbolic weapons of pre-modern Japan and medieval Europe.
Sword tip

Stefan’s background is in prehistoric and early medieval archaeology with a specialization in arms and armour studies. This is a rare opportunity to hear about a comparative study of Japanese and European sword-making traditions and culture.

The Later Middle Ages: A Missing Chapter in the History of Migration to England

Dr Bart Lambert, University of York

I must confess I had an ulterior motive in inviting our December speaker, Dr Bart Lambert of the University of York, to give a talk about late Medieval migration. Migration has been one of the topics of Manchester Museum’s thematic collecting project for the last 18 months, which culminated for me  in a visit to the Greek island of Lesvos to collect a refugee’s life jacket just over a year ago.  As part of the project I’ve looked at Roman inscriptions from Mancunium or Manchester in the museum collection but the medieval period  posed more of a challenge. Everyone’s familiar with the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans but Dr Lambert’s talk opened up a whole new chapter about the movement of people during the later Middle Ages.

Statue of the Black Prince in Leeds

We are certainly no stranger to late Medieval migration in Leeds. One of the city’s prominent  landmarks in City Square opposite the railway station is a statue of the Black Prince created by sculptor Thomas Brock (1847-1922). It was set up thanks to the generosity and civic-mindedness of Colonel Thomas William Harding  who sought a suitably distinguished subject to be the focus of the Italianate piazza he had created. That there was no direct link with the history of city  mattered little and the bronze scroll around the base of the statue reads like a roll-call of the Ladybird book of well-to-do, respectable and famous people during the reign of Edward III: Sir John Chandos, Sir Walter Nanny, William of Wykeham, John Wycliff, Chaucer, Froissart, van Arteveldt and du Guesclin. Not to mention bronze panels depicting the battles of Crecy and Sluys and a plaque honouring the Black Prince himself, ‘Edward, Prince of Wales, surnamed the Black Prince. The Hero of Crecy and Poitiers. The Flower of England’s chivalry…’

Van Arteveldt’s name in the scroll around the plinth of the statue

Of these, van Arteveldt is credited with encouraging Edward III to bring Flemish weavers and dyers to England, which Colonel Harding may have believed helped to lay the foundations of the West Yorkshire textile industry. As our speaker explained it is more likely that van Arteveldt was finding a home overseas where political exiles from Flanders wouldn’t pose a threat.

If civic statuary inspired by Victorian medievalism is a rather dubious source of information about late Medieval migration, Dr Lambert presented data of far more reliable kind: the records of the country’s alien population that were created for taxation purposes during the reign of Henry VI in order to help fund the war in France. The tax operated between 1440 and 1447. Juries were appointed in each community to identify who was an alien. Returns from the alien subsidy  highlights the presence of French people, many of whom must have been refugees fleeing parts of France which had been occupied by the English but were being recaptured by the French monarchy. There were also   labourers and servants from the Low Countries who realised that they could earn more money on the other side of the Channel. Similarly, there were Scottish People on the borders and Irish people in the West Country who at that time would have been classified as aliens because they came from a different kingdom of the British Isles.

If any of this echoes recent events  you might not be surprised to learn that the immigrants brought with them new skills in making fine and fancy goods including clothing, footwear and jewellery that native crafts people found difficult to compete with. This caused tensions that resulted in appalling acts of violence against the newcomers,  and even threats to mutilate immigrant workers so that they could not compete with English (in practice London) crafts people.

The tax came to an end in 1487 because it had ceased to gather significant sums of money. Bart suggested that by this time people on local juries had formed relationships with the immigrants and had less reason to report them to the authorities for taxation. So what begins as a rather unpleasant story about penalising vulnerable people in medieval society develops into something more heartening, a story of solidarity not marginalisation of the other.

Someone once said there’s nothing new  under the sun except perhaps the cigarette. In this lecture the echoes of Brexit were all too loud. Many thanks to Bart for making us think as much about the present as about the past.

‘Skeletons: Our Buried Bones’ – Medieval human remains on display

I am very grateful to Kat Baxter, Curator of Archaeology at Leeds Museums and Galleries, for writing this guest blog for the Medieval Section. There is still time to go and see this exhibition, which includes a number of fascinating Medieval skeletons, before it closes on 7th January. So if you are wanting an excuse to get away from the seasonal over-indulgence and sitting in front of the television go and see this great exhibition at the Leeds City Museum.

One of the casualties from the battle of Towton

There isn’t much time before we say goodbye to the wonderful ‘Skeletons: Our Buried Bones’ exhibition in Leeds City Museum.  The exhibition, in partnership with the Museum of London and Wellcome Collection, brings together the skeletons of 12 individuals from across Yorkshire and London to unearth their stories and share clues to life and death in the past.

Here are some of the stories written on the bones of the Medieval individuals on display.  Visit the exhibition before 7th January 2018 to find out more about these and other skeletons of those who have gone before us.

The Green Goddess

1350 – 1400, St Mary Graces, Royal Mint, East Smithfield, London. On loan from the Museum of London

This skeleton of a woman age 26-35 shows no evidence of disease or trauma.  It does, however, show how activities after burial can affect a person’s skeleton.  She was buried under the Royal Mint, where coins were manufactured.  The process produced copper waste which ended up in the earth and subsequently stained her skull and neck green.

© Leeds Museums and Galleries

The Anchoress

1432-1488, All-Saint’s, Fishergate, York. On loan from The University of Sheffield

 This skeleton of a middle-aged lady who lived in York nearly 600 years ago was uncovered in the apse of the Medieval stone church at All-Saint’s.

The lady was probably of high status, considering the prestige placed on being buried in a church at this time.  But she was found in an unusual position, tightly crouched with her knees raised up towards her chest.

The Anchoress was buried in a crouched position.
Photograph courtesy of On-Site Archaeology

Historical records tell us that there was an anchoress called Lady Isabel German who lived in the All Saint’s churchyard from 1428 until 1448.  An anchoress is a female anchorite, or someone who decides to live their life in isolation to concentrate fully on their spiritual growth.  The apse of the church was a small room and was likely to have been where she lived out her days with the door sealed shut.

Her bones show that in life she suffered from severe osteoporosis, not surprising if she was confined to such a small space.  More surprisingly, the skeleton also shows that she suffered from venereal syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection.

Is it possible that Lady Isabel German became an anchoress to repent her sins because she contracted this disease as a young woman?  Was she forced into retreating from society or was it a path she chose for herself?  Although we can speculate, we do not know the answers and much of her life remains a mystery.

 The Plague Victim

1348-1350, East Smithfield Black Death cemetery, London. On loan from the Museum of London

The skeleton of this man shows that he lived with a serious injury.  He was found with an iron arrowhead lodged in his spine, which had just avoided damaging his spinal cord.  The bone around it had healed, indicating that he had recovered from the attack.  Unfortunately for him he was later killed by the plague which arrived in London in 1348.  His bones do not tell us this however – the plague killed too quickly to leave any marks on the skeleton.  We know because he was excavated from one of London’s ‘catastrophe’ burial sites, specifically created to accommodate plague victims.

The Soldier

1461, Towton, near Tadcaster, North Yorkshire. On loan from The University of Bradford

This man’s remains were found in a mass burial of 40 skeletons at Towton Hall in 2006, all of whom were soldiers at the Battle of Towton.  This skeleton shows evidence of extremely violent injuries, far beyond what would have been needed to kill him.  Square holes in his skull were made by a pole axe, and blade injuries are evident on his skull, arms and wrists.  Injuries caused to his neck by a bladed weapon suggest that he was decapitated.  It is likely that all of the individuals in the mass grave were executed after the battle rather than killed on the battlefield.



The Later Middle Ages: A Missing Chapter in the History of Migration to England

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The Medieval Section’s December lecture on migration to English during the later Middle Ages will be given by Dr Bart Lambert, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of York. Dr Lambert has kindly provided the following details about his talk:

Historians studying migration to the British Isles traditionally concentrate on the successive comings of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans, before moving rapidly forward to the arrival of minority religious and ethnic groups, both as refugees and as forced migrants, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Yet in 2015, the AHRC-funded England’s Immigrants-project revealed that during the later Middle Ages, between 1 and 5 per cent of the English population was born abroad. These first-generation immigrants made essential contributions to the country’s commercial, agricultural and manufacturing economies and left a lasting cultural legacy. Their presence prompted the government to develop new legal frameworks, parts of which are still in place today. This paper will explore the lives of late medieval England’s immigrant population and establish its wider significance in light of the longer-term history of migration to the British Isles.

The lecture meeting will take place in the Swarthmore Education Institute at 2pm on Saturday 9th December and will be followed by the Medieval Section’s traditional Christmas afternoon tea.


Virtual Reality in Viking Rediscover the Legend Exhibition


When I attended the Society for Museum Archaeology conference in Sheffield last week Natalie Buy from York Museums Trust and Gareth Beale from University of York gave a presentation about the touring Vikings Rediscover the Legend exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum. Unfortunately for Yorkshire readers the exhibition closed on 5th November, although it will also be shown in Nottingham, Southport, Aberdeen and Norwich over the next two years. The idea is that each venue contributes exhibits from its own collection to complement the treasures from the British Museum.


One exhibition but with five different identities, one of the speakers at the conference called it a veritable smorgasbord of objects, many of them star exhibits in the roll call of great Viking discoveries over many years, including the Lewis chessmen, the Cuerdale hoard (selection from above), the and the Coppergate helmet, as well as new additions to the corpus such as the Bedale hoard and the Vale of York hoard.

This high calibre material is used to explore the impact of the Vikings in Britain and the new discoveries enable a rethink of what it meant to be a Viking. There is also a contemporary collecting display showing film posters, Lego and even Viking cat hats. It also includes low key but popular interactives such as dressing up and jigsaws for families with children but still offers rich archaeological information for those who want to know more.


Perhaps the most exciting element of the displays involves the use of digital technology to create an immersive environment showing the camp at Torksey where the Vikings overwintered in 872-3. Whilst the popular image of Vikings as raiders and invaders is very powerful, Torksey was where they worked, traded, and lived with their families. Archaeologists have found a wide range of material that was dropped and lost in the mud. The image above gives a flavour of the experience looking through the viewer. The visitor can turn the viewer through 360 degrees and, thanks to the Languages Department at University of York, can hear people of the time conversing in Old Norse and Frankish.

The virtual reality draws upon technology used in the creative industries and the exhibition project provided an opportunity to see how it worked in a museum environment. It cleverly gives the visitor a sense of life one thousand years ago by presenting vignettes of Viking life: a boatyard where ship maintenance is taking place; in the camp at Torksey in the rain, showing people sheltering under tents and awnings; and a trading scene involving a shipment of barrels of wine. Visitors view the VR scenes through a mask that is held in front of the face. This was a little bit heavy for prolonged use but the version I saw in Sheffield used cardboard and was lighter. It certainly brought the 9th century Vikings’camp to life.

The venue for the exhibition was the existing Medieval gallery in the Yorkshire Museum and this made for a sometimes cramped experience. Poor design meant that the visitor had to walk to one side of some of the cases in order to see the label for an object that presented to the front. In one instance this meant walking into a crowded cul-de-sac where other visitors were looking at interpretation. This brought back unfortunate memories of the Viking Ship exhibition at the British Museum. This may simply be the result of adapting the touring exhibition for the venue and hopefully it won’t be repeated at the next venue.


At the time of writing I am hoping to invite one of the speakers, Gareth Beale, to speak to the Medieval Section of the YHAS about this work and it may be possible to bring along the lighter versions of the viewers so that members can enjoy the immersive experience of Torksey Viking camp.

IMS Open Lecture Series: ‘Medieval Cursing and Its Uses’

Tuesday 31st October 2017 at 17.30 in the Parkinson Building: Nathan Bodington Council Chamber.

Sarah Hamilton is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Exeter. She researches religion and society in the early Middle Ages with an especial interest in liturgy. Her books include Understanding Medieval Liturgy: Essays in Interpretation, edited with Helen Gittos (2015), Church and People in the Medieval West, 900-1200 (2013) and The Practice of Penance, 900-1050 (2001). She is currently PI for the HERA funded project, After Empire: Using and not using the past in the crisis of the Carolingian world, c. 900-c.1050.

‘Let them be above the face of the earth on a dung heap, so that they are an example of disgrace and cursing to present and future generations. And just as these lights are extinguished, thrown down from our hands today, so may their lights be extinguished in eternity.’

This paper explores texts like this one from early tenth-century Rheims to investigate the gap between the oral world of ritual performance and that of text. Anathema – the cursing and excommunication of obdurate sinners – was the most powerful spiritual weapon available to bishops. Its use is attested from the time of the early Church onwards, but the earliest surviving liturgical records date only from the tenth and eleventh centuries. Investigating how and why such records came to be made at this time, this paper suggests they can cast fresh light both on the development of episcopal authority in this period, and on how and why service books came to be compiled.

Holy but not healthy? Fish-eating in the Middle Ages

feeding the five thousand British Library Arundel MS 157 f.7

The next lecture in the programme of the Medieval Section will be given by Associate Professor Iona McCleery of the University of Leeds who will speak about fish eating in the Middle Ages. Dr McCleery has kindly sent the following summary:- ‘Medieval people seem to have started to eat a lot of fish from the 11th century onwards (what archaeologists call the ‘fish event horizon’). This is usually explained as widespread adoption of strict Christian dietary rules and/or the development of deep sea fishing technology. However, from around the same time medieval medical writings began to view fish as unhealthy foodstuffs. This talk will explore the ambiguous role of fish in medieval culture, drawing in particular on medieval miracle narratives as sources for the complex relationships between medicine, spirituality and daily life.’

Iona McCleery is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Leeds (since 2007). She researches the history of medicine, food, healing miracles and late medieval Portugal and its early empire. Between 2010 and 2014 she ran the Wellcome Trust-funded project You Are What You Ate, which was a collaboration of Wakefield Council and the universities of Leeds and Bradford on the history, archaeology, science and representation of food.

The lecture will be held at 2pm in the Swarthmore Institute in Leeds on 11th November.