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.

Medieval Section Lecture – Looking for the Old Norse Influence in Leeds on 14th October

Dictionary image

In the early Middle Ages, Scandinavian influence on British life, language and culture was profound.  The Vikings had a major and lasting impact, and their legacy still resonates strongly in modern constructions of British identity and heritage. Scandinavian settlement began in earnest in the late ninth century, especially in the North and East of England, and probably its most enduring and significant effect was on the English language.  The Gersum Project is a three-year collaborative research project in English lexicography, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) from 2016–19.  It is named after the Middle English word gersum, borrowed from Old Norse gørsemi ‘treasure’, and it will be the fullest survey ever undertaken of the rich and varied body of English words derived from Old Norse.

Gersum Project logo

English words with Old Norse origins certainly enriched the language.  They include such basic modern-day items as sky, egg, law, leg, call, take, window, knife, die and skin, and the pronouns they, their and them, as well as medieval words as diverse and intriguing as hernez ‘brains’, muged ‘drizzled’, stange ‘pole’ and wothe ‘danger’.  These are cultural artefacts which link us directly to the Vikings, and many of which English-speakers still use on a daily basis; and there are hundreds of other similar borrowings in standard and regional English usage, especially Northern dialects.  The Gersum Project is investigating their early history to address questions about how we can identify Old Norse loans, and how and by whom these words were used in the first few centuries after their adoption into English, especially in the crucial Middle English period.  The project’s research will result in a fully searchable online catalogue of the more than 1000 different words for which an origin in Norse has been suggested in a corpus of major Middle English poems from the North of England, including famous works of literature such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and The Wars of Alexander.  Users of the catalogue will be able to explore, amongst other issues, each word’s etymology, meaning, textual attestations and dialectal distribution.  The project also incorporates a number of events, including an inter-disciplinary conference in Cambridge and a series of talks open to the general public.  The project team is Dr Richard Dance (Cambridge), Dr Sara Pons-Sanz (Cardiff) and Dr Brittany Schorn (Cambridge).  For more information, please visit our website .


Richard Dance studied in Oxford, where he completed a doctorate in 1997 on the Old Norse influence on early Middle English vocabulary.  He is Reader in Early English in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic in the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of St Catharine’s College.

Brittany Schorn completed her doctorate on Old Norse poetry in Cambridge in 2012. She is Research Associate on the Gersum Project, and based in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic in the University of Cambridge.

The lecture will take place at 2pm at Swarthmore Education Centre in Leeds in the main hall on the lower ground floor. This is because of the need to allow for a larger than usual turnout for the session, which is being held jointly with the Yorkshire Dialect Society.

Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project


The next meeting of Harrogate Archaeological Society will feature an illustrated talk  by Dr Jennifer Crangle entitled ‘Rothwell’s bones; medieval curation of the dead’. Dr Crangle, together with Dr Elizabeth Craig-Atkins and Prof Dawn Hadley, established the ‘Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project’ based on the medieval crypt and collection of human skeletal material at Holy Trinity Church, Rothwell, Northamptonshire.

This subterranean charnel chapel houses one of only two remaining in situ medieval ossuaries (collections of human bones) in England. The Project aims to further the understanding of charnelling practices in the medieval period and in gaining insight into the role of human remains in medieval Christian religious practice.

The lecture will take place on Saturday 5th August at 2.30 p.m. at Harlow Hill Methodist Church, Otley Road, Harrogate HG2 0AG (£3 admission fee for non-members includes refreshments).


800th Anniversary of St Robert of Knaresborough in 2018

There will be an open event/soft launch for local people and the co-ordinating group behind the commemoration of the 800th anniversary of Saint Robert on the afternoon of Sunday, 24th September in Knaresborough (2-5pm at Gracious Street Methodist Church Centre).

Saint Robert was born in 1160 lived as a hermit by the River Nidd. Robert gained a reputation for his charitable works for the poor and redeeming men from prison,  which upset the authorities.  He spent some time at St. Hilda’s Chapel in Rudfarlington. He established an order of Trinitarian Friars at Knaresborough Priory. He died on 24 September 1218.

Also locally is St Robert’s Well on  the York Road, just outside Knaresborough. It strtedas a well and was converted into a  cold bath. This site is 400m from Robert’s cave and chapel to which it was connected by a track. More recently a business park has been  built on the site of this well but people still make offerings of coins through a metal grid covering the well.

The event website is in early development, but you can visit it here where there are some photos of the cave occupied by Saint Robert during the reign of King John.  I understand there are markings on the inside of the cave but it is not clear what their historical significance is. If you’re interested in finding out more about this locally and regionally important saint there are The Metrical Life of St. Robert of Knaresborough, edited by Joyce Bazire in the Early Text Society publications (1953) and Rotha Mary Clay’s The Hermits and Anchorites of England (1914). This link also includes a translation of a 13th Century Life of St Robert by Frank Bottomley.

It would be good to organise a visit to Knaresborough for Medieval Section members next year to mark the occasion, perhaps ending with a visit to Fountains Abbey, whose monks tried to appropriate Saint Robert’s body after his death. Do let me know if this might be of interest. If you are local and a member of the Section perhaps you’d like to attend the launch event and tell us about the plans to commemorate Saint Robert’s 800th anniversary next year.

Thanks to Peter Lacy for bringing this to the attention of the Medieval Section.






World Medieval: a Mongol Coin at Manchester Museum

Uljaitu hare

With the hotly anticipated seventh series of HBO’s Game of Thrones about to to be released, it seems opportune to flag a coin in Manchester Museum’s numismatic collection with a passing link to the terrifying Dothraki horseman who began their long-awaited sea crossing to Westeros at the end of the last series.

The historical context for this coin is rather complicated but here goes:-

The story really begins with Yissugei, father of Jenghiz or Gengiz Khan, who was leader of one of the tribes on the northern boundary of the kingdom of China. Yissugei asserted his independence from Chinese influence and was succeeded by Temujin (the name of Jenghiz or Chinngiz Kahn). Temujin spent 30 years uniting the Mongol tribes and in 1206 AD claimed the title of ‘very mighty king’.

By the time Jenghiz or Chinngiz Khan died in 1227 AD, aged 64, the Mongols had conquered a large part of Central Asia, and the Mongol Empire stretched from the Yellow Sea to the Crimea. The empire was created by an army of cavalry using bows and arrow but it was a force that also had access to sophisticated Chinese siege technology. The Mongols were irresistible. Their conquests have been referred to as an ‘appalling avalanche of destruction’ (J.J.Saunders, A History of Medieval Islam 1965, repr. 1982, p.171). The Mongol leadership demanded not friendship and alliance but abject submission (p.180)! They are presumably the inspiration for J.R.R.Martin’s savage horse-riding Dothraki in Game of Thrones. It is symptomatic of how savage they are that when asked what is the Dothraki word for thank you, one of the characters replies pointedly, “There is no Dothraki word for thank you”.

Now I don’t know whether the Mongols  have a word for thank you but the name used for the Mongol tribes over which Jenghiz ruled is ‘the Golden Horde’, which subdivided into ‘the Blue Horde’ and ‘the White Horde’, each ruled by one of his sons. Hulagu, second brother of Mangu (with Khubilai Khan), were all grandsons of Jenghiz Khan. In 1258 the Mongols under Hulagu captured Baghdad, one of the great cities of the Islamic Caliphate, plundered it, slaughtered the Muslim population (800,000 is the lowest estimate) and killed the last Caliph, Al Mustasim, by trampling him to death.  The sacking of Baghdad put an end to 500 years of the Abassid caliphate. Hulagu was bitterly hostile to Islam. Osama bin Laden compared the US led invasion of Iraq to the Mongol conquest of the 1250s.

Hulagu established a dynasty in Persia that became the Ilkhanid dynasty  – the Mongols of Persia. Ilkhan means a provincial khan. Further Mongol extension to the west was stopped by the Mamluks of Egypt at the battle of Ain Jalut or Goliath’s Spring (September 1260). Ain Jalut was one of the world’s decisive battles yet it is relatively little known in popular culture. Had the Mamluks been defeated Islam might well have been destroyed as a religion.

Uljaitu Mongol legeed

In the numismatic collection of Manchester Museum is a coin known as a copper fals, issued in the reign of Arghun ibn Abaga (683-690 = 1284-1294) or Uljaitu ibn Arghun (704-716 = 1304-1316) showing a hare running to the right with the Kalima, the Islamic statement of faith (‘there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet/Messenger’). The reverse shows lines of writing. This is Mongolian with Uyghur and Phags-Pa script and can be seen on most of the Ilkhanid coins. It is a statement of loyalty to the ancestors. However, the dynasty was established in the Middle East where Arabic was and remains the daily language for many people. Arabic was used on the coins because the Mongols still found coinage useful as a medium for communicating the power of the state.

On the reverse is:-

Qaghanu (tilte of khan)

Nreber (an honorific?)

The khan’s name e.g Arghun or Uljaitu

Deledkegulug (?)

For a good diagram explaining this, See:-


It is often said that Islam prohibited pictorial art but it is clear that this was not enforced rigidly and attitudes were more tolerant at different times. The Mongols, certainly, would have been familiar with hares from seeing them on the Asian steppes. A hare is sometimes seen on Islamic pottery of earlier and later date. The Mongols were influenced by Nestorian Christianity in the early years but later accepted Islam as their religion. Europeans tended to regard Nestorianism as heretical for its beliefs about the nature of Jesus. Uljaitu, the Ilkhan of Persia, in whose name this coin was probably struck, may have been Christian but converted to Islam.

Fulford Battlefield Society

Piece of long bone (from a horse?) found during the excavation at Fulford. Butchering and even damage from a mattock have been considered but both seem unlikely for the damage to the bone. The mineralised remnants of the ‘arrow’ are consistent with the weapon embedding  itself in the rib cage.
It’s nearly ‘digging’ time again. This year will be rather different. Alongside the digging we will be sorting and conserving the thousands of finds from the project.

The aim of the 2017 digging is to investigate the fringe of the peat, dig a number of test pits and investigate the geology.

The other major activity will be the sorting and conservation of the thousands of finds we have assembled during the project. With six folders of data and over 3000 finds, we really need your help! The aim is to ensure that all of the possible information has been extracted from these finds.


The project runs from Saturday 15 to Sunday 31 July with digging starting at 10ish. The dig welcomes experienced and novice archaeologists as a part of the CBA Festival of Archaeology. I will be camping on the site and you are welcome to join me.

As always, we welcome everybody to come and join the dig. There is no need to book days as the work load will accommodate as many as come. Just turn up. Bring a friend and get them to add their name to the mailing list  http ://groupspaces . com/FulfordBattlefieldSociety. Twitter is @earlmorcar.

Last year several diggers had the new ‘Skills Passport’ which allows volunteers to keep a formal record of what they have done. The diverse work we undertake provides opportunities to document your skills skills. A small supply of passports has been obtained and can be purchased onsite (£8,50 or to buy your own in advance visit http ://www . archaeologyskills . co . uk/shop/)


I have uploaded the full dig plan in the ‘files’ tab on our webspace.

Breaking news: I was approached by the Vikings organisation recently to see if we could organise a living history and battle reenactment event at Fulford this year. Plans are still being finalised but we will probably be organising a major event on the site on 23/24 Sept.

Viking reenactment enthusiasts


New! Expected September 2017! Rita Wood’s book looking at Romanesque sculpture in Europe, that is, the Christian West, is a rational attempt to find meaning for (most of) those lions and dragons, as well as other creatures. It places them in the context of the Gregorian reforms, and identifies mainstream, largely biblical, imagery. There are over 200 illustrations and an index. If you might be interested in buying a copy please e-mail the author and she will let you know when her book is ready, how much it will cost and how you can order a copy direct from the printer. E: isarita2003@yahoo.co.uk

Medieval Section lecture and AGM – Saturday, 13 May, 2 pm

Medieval Section lecture and AGM this Saturday:

Gary Brannan is talking about the the York Archbishops’ Registers. He writes:

The registers contain a wealth of information relating to both clerical and lay matters, and are one of the largest, yet least-exploited sources for the study of medieval England and, specifically, medieval Yorkshire. The registers document the church’s role in society, its relationship with the state and crucially, with itself. From wayward priests to royal infidelity and expressions of personal piety to papal indulgence, the registers are a crucial source for local medieval research and are now available free online.

At Swarthmore, Saturday, 13 May, 2 pm, and followed by the section AGM. There’s an opening for a new member to join the committee – please let Bryan know if you’re interested.

Lecture 8th April 2017: Ian Roberts on Wakefield Cathedral and St Giles’ Church, Pontefract: New Archaeological Insights

Our speaker today, Ian Roberts, will talk about the new archaeological insights which have emerged from the work on Wakefield Cathedral and St Giles’ Church, Pontefract. He writes: ‘The major re-ordering which involves the excavation of historic church interiors is a relatively rare occurrence. However, in the last five years, two of West Yorkshire’s medieval churches have had extensive floor renewals, providing archaeological opportunities to investigate and reassess long-standing ideas about their development, based upon Victorian observations.’

The lecture will be in the Swarthmore Centre today at 2pm. Our AGM has been postponed until next month.