Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The War of the Spanish Succession 1701-1714, by James Falkner

Precis: A good work on a now-obscure war recommended for readers who enjoy military and diplomatic history, or who have an interest in European history of the Eighteenth century.

Main Review: If one were to summarize the War of the Spanish Succession in the most cynical manner, one might put it thus: “Two old men get into a fight over whose grandson gets to be king of Spain, thousands die, little changes.”

One would not be far off.

Of course, the war had deeper issues than that. The crisis began when King Charles II of Spain, the sickly and bizarre last of the Spanish Habsburgs, died in 1700 without a direct heir. He had named as heir Philip of Anjou, the grandson of his older sister and King Louis XIV. If Philip for some reason refused, the next named heir was Archduke Charles of Austria, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I and, through his mother, grandson of King Philip III of Spain, making him Charles II’s cousin.

Being made to trace a Habsburg family tree might well be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

In any event, both men claimed the throne at the urging of their respective monarchs, King Louis XIV and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. The strategic stakes were actually enormous for both realms: for nearly two hundred years, French foreign policy had striven to prevent a union of the two powerful crowns, which would have left them surrounded. The Spanish Empire, though in decline, was fabulously wealthy, and that wealth, in the hands of a vigorous Habsburg at the head of the reunited House, would poses a mortal danger to France. Thus Louis was anxious to see his grandson take the throne, both to prevent that union and get his own grubby paws on all that wealth.

On the other hand, the Austrian Habsburgs wanted the Spanish throne and empire for similar reasons: to counter France and to provide more money and troops for their struggle with the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans.

And then there was England, first under King William III and then Queen Anne, and the Dutch republic. Both had reasons for wanting to weaken Spain and carve off pieces of its Empire, as well as preventing France from gaining control of Spain, the prospect of which probably had the leaders of both lands waking up screaming from nightmares. Thus they backed the claim of Archduke Charles.

And so with Spain in a regency, both sides gathered allies, lined up, and declared war in 1701. A war that would last 14 years, until treaties get signed, Philip gets to keep his throne, some minor territorial changes take place, France winds up broke, and everyone takes a breather until the next war.

Falkner does a good job telling the story of the war and its diplomacy, going year by year and the many fronts: the Rhine region, the Spanish Netherlands (largely today’s Belgium), Italy, and Spain and Portugal. He describes the campaigns and how the commanders fought them, covering battles and sieges, and the diplomacy and strategy of both Louis, on the one hand (for he was decidedly the senior partner in the Franco-Spanish alliance), and the “Grand Alliance” on the other.

But it is a work of pure military history, and thus rather dry for that. Also, the war dragged on for so that, that the reader might well find himself sighing and thinking “Look, it’s over. Just cut a deal already.” If one is looking for how the war affected the societies of the principals, one will find little of that. For me that was fine, as I wanted to learn more about the war itself. The book is heavily footnoted, but these are mostly citations, not explanatory notes. Also, the lack of more than a few maps was unhelpful, particularly when reading about major battles, such as Blenheim and Ramillies. Still, the descriptions are not hard to follow.

One section I greatly appreciated was Appendix III, which provides brief biographies of key players in the war, including what happened to them after it ended. It was the biography of the Duke of Berwick, the illegitimate son of King James II of England and his mistress, Arabella Churchill (thus making him a relative of Winston Churchill, I believe), and one of King Louis’ best generals (his father having been deposed and forced to flee in 1688), that provided my favorite quote:

“Having lived in semi-retirement for some time, Berwick was recalled to service by King Louis XV to campaign in the War of the Polish Succession. At the siege of Phillipsburg, on 12 June 1734, he was decapitated by a roundshot thought to have been fired in error by his own gunners.

Should have stayed in retirement, Your Grace.

I read The War of the Spanish Succession 1701-1714 in Kindle format and I’m happy to report I found it well-formatted and typo-free. Too often, Amazon lets sloppy publishers publish shoddy work.

Recommended, with the caveat that it is most likely to appeal to those with a strong interest in military history per se.

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Here’s an interesting story from California’s past.

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Summary: An interesting monograph on the topic of murder in the Roman Republic and Empire, but marred by the very large ax the author has to grind. Recommended with reservations.

A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome, by Emma Southon, should be of interest to the general student of Roman History and the history of law, because it covers because it explores an intriguing question: how did the Roman people and state view the deliberate killing of one person by another outside the context of war? In our time, murder, the unlawful killing of one person by another, is viewed as a grave crime warranting the intervention of the State through the police and courts. But how did the Romans, from whom we take many of our concepts of the Rule of Law, themselves see it?

Southon, who holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, over the course of nine chapters explores these differences, which can be striking. Looking at homicides ranging from the highest classes of Roman society, emperors and consuls, to the lowest – slaves, gladiators, and prostitutes – she looks at a fundamental question: whose deaths were, in the Roman perspective, even worth caring about? From there she goes on to “Okay, this person is dead. Now what?”

(It should be noted that Southon uses a very broad definition of murder, essentially equating it with homicide: “…I have used a very comprehensive definition of ‘murder’ to include basically all killing. Rightness and wrongness are products of social space, where gender, status, race, location, means, time, wealth and infinite other variables shift and move and come together to create rightness and wrongness that are never static. Because of this, I have interpreted the concept of murder very (very) broadly.”)

In looking at these questions, Southon makes two valuable observations (at least, two that stick with me days after finishing the book). The first is that not all lives mattered. In our Judeo-Christian/Anglo-American ethics and jurisprudence, the ideal is that the murder of “someone important” is no different from the murder of a nobody: killing a homeless person is just as much a crime as killing a billionaire or a celebrity. Each is of equal worth as a person and each has an equal right to life.

Southon points out, I think rightly, that the Romans (and, I suspect, much of the Ancient World) would scratch their heads at that. Society was rigidly divided into those who came from powerful families and did important things and who had dignity, the honestiores, and those who didn’t, the infames (“infamous”) who were barely above animals. Romans and the Roman State simply didn’t see the killing of the latter as any big deal. Stab Julius Caesar, for example, and the civil war is on. Beat Publius the slave to death because he broke a vase and, oh well, you can always buy another slave.

She’s also right to point out the inferior and more vulnerable position of Roman women, though I think she errs by omission by failing to point out the status of women in, for example, in Classical Greece was far worse. In Rome, at least, women could own property and businesses. They were, however, still at the mercy of their husbands and fathers.

And this leads to another interesting observation Southon makes, that murder in Rome was not a crime against the sovereign (the Crown in the UK and the People in the US), but often a private family matter. Killings were often kept “in house” lest exposure cause scandal and a stain on the family reputation. If someone committed a crime worth killing for, such as plotting to poison dear old Pater to get his money, it was usually up to the family to deal with it themselves. There was no public prosecution as we think of it.

One could seek to take a killer to court in Rome, but this was again a matter of a family bringing its case to a court and hiring an advocate to speak for them. (Cicero being among the most famous) A variant on this lead to one of my favorite stories in the book, regarding how the Emperor Tiberius personally investigated the case of a woman found dead and determined her husband had murdered her. But, again, Southon’s point holds true: all of the actors in this story were Important People whose lives were considered to have worth. One doubts very much if the Emperor would have investigated the killing of a tavern keeper’s wife.

Southon, as I see it, approaches her topic from a leftist-feminist perspective, looking at class, gender, and power relationships. This itself I have no problem with, even if it’s not a perspective I share; different lenses or filters bring other facts into focus that can provide insight.

The problem as I see it, one that hurts an otherwise worthy book, is Southon’s tone and style. The book, and especially its notes, are written in a casual, even foul-mouthed style as if one were talking with a colleague in a bar over beers one evening. And there is plenty of “Can you believe they would do this shit?” anger on behalf of the victims throughout, as well as humorous references to modern pop culture. (Southon co-hosts a podcast called “History is Sexy,” so I gather this style is her metier.)

At first, I found this refreshing and enjoyable, but, after a couple of chapters, it became tiresome. I found myself thinking “Okay, I get it! The Romans were scum and they casually killed people in really horrible ways. The horse is dead, you can stop beating it now.” After a while, I was yearning for just a dollop of boring old scholarly objectivity. In short, the attempt to be relatable and casual with the reader wound up distracting from the message she was trying to get across.

Format note: I read “A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” in Kindle format. The copy was clean, with no editing or formatting mistakes that I saw. Too often, Amazon tolerates these. I was happy to see the publishers took care with this book.

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History is weirder and more wonderful than we can ever imagine:

And everyone in town seemed to have an opinion. When William Barton was sued for divorce on grounds of impotence:

Several women also inspected William Barton’s genitalia, including one who agreed that William’s “rod and testicles appeared sufficient to serve and please any honest woman.” But some women had less glowing comments about William’s genitalia, supporting his wife’s accusation of impotence. Robert Lincoln, however, countered that these particular women had handled William’s penis too roughly and with such cold hands that “on account of shame, his rod retracted itself into William’s body.”

I can see porn stars as neutral court-appointed expert witnesses these days.

via Real Clear Investigations

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medieval court lawyer

The earliest written use of the “F-bomb” has been traced back to the 14th century:

We previously thought that the first use of the “F word” dated back to 1528 — to when a monk jotted the word in the margins of Cicero’s De Officiis. But it turns out that you can find traces of this colorful curse word in English court documents written in 1310.

Dr. Paul Booth, a former lecturer in medieval history at Keele University, was looking through court records from the age of Edward II when he accidentally…

You’ll have to click through for the context of this important discovery. It’s hilarious, albeit unsurprisingly R-rated.

And, as someone who studied Latin for several years, I can sympathize with that monk — I used that same word many times while trying to translate Cicero.

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His fate a reminder

His fate a reminder

There’s a wonderful article at the BBC about the traditions surrounding the Queen’s Speech in the House of Lords, which opens Parliament. The whole article is worth a read, but this in particular delighted me:

And here is the really cheeky move: parliament forces Her Majesty to consider her own mortality as she gets dressed for the occasion. For in the Robing Room of the House of Lords, where the Queen puts on her robe and imperial state crown, the authorities have chosen to display a facsimile of the death warrant of her ancestor, Charles I.

If ever there were a symbol to express the end of the divine right of kings and the limits of a constitutional monarchy, that document is it.

Who says the British don’t have a puckish sense of humor? 😀

Of course, fair is fair. The Queen is allowed to keep a member of Parliament hostage during her speech, to guarantee her safety. This year’s designated fall guy will have to suffer by sitting in Buckingham Palace and drink tea, while watching the speech on TV.

Oh, cruel fate!

The author makes an excellent point at the end, though, about why the British maintain these seemingly silly rituals:

The point is this: as you watch the state opening of parliament, remember it is one of the strongest ceremonial demonstrations of our liberty that we have. Democracy is not just the freedom to vote out a government we dislike; it is also the freedom not to be ruled by an autocratic monarch chosen by God.

It is what our ancestors fought over in the civil war. And it is a right that we are reminded of every year.

I can appreciate that.

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"Your sommelier"

“Local postmaster?”

What makes this special is that the letter was written by a Roman soldier to his family in Egypt, over 1,800 years ago:

A newly deciphered letter home dating back around 1,800 years reveals the pleas of a young Egyptian soldier named Aurelius Polion who was serving, probably as a volunteer, in a Roman legion in Europe.

In the letter, written mainly in Greek, Polion tells his family that he is desperate to hear from them and that he is going to request leave to make the long journey home to see them.

Addressed to his mother (a bread seller), sister and brother, part of it reads: “I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf. I do not cease writing to you, but you do not have me in mind,” it reads.

“I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me so that I may know how you …” (Part of the letter hasn’t survived.)

(The back of the letter contains instructions for the carrier to deliver it to a military veteran whose name may have been Acutius Leon who could forward it to Polion’s family. Although the Roman Empire had a military postal system, Polion appears not to have used it The back of the letter contains instructions for the carrier to deliver it to a military veteran whose name may have been Acutius Leon who could forward it to Polion’s family. Although the Roman Empire had a military postal system, Polion appears not to have used it, entrusting the veteran instead.)

Polion says he has written six letters to his family without response, suggesting some sort of family tensions.

Change the religious and other references to modern-day terms, and this letter could have been written by a worried American anywhere around the world. I’ve often said that people haven’t changed all that much since civilization began around 6,000 years ago, and I think this letter is more evidence of that. Though the letter apparently reached his family (it was discovered in the ruins of a Roman-era Egyptian village), there’s nothing to indicate if Aurelius Polion ever heard back.

I’d like to think he eventually did get that letter from home.

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"Your sommelier"

“Your sommelier”

A neat archaeological find in Israel: a wine cellar from 1700 B.C. with enough remains to tell us something about ancient winemaking:

Talk about aged wine.

Archaeologists say they have discovered a 3,700-year-old wine cellar in Israel, a finding that offers insights into the early roots of winemaking.

The large wine cellar was unearthed in the ruined palace of a Canaanite city in northern Israel, called Tel Kabri, not far from the country’s modern wineries. The excavations revealed 40 one-meter-tall jars kept in what appeared to be a storage room.

No liquid contents could have survived the millennia. But an analysis of organic residue trapped in the pores of the jars suggested that they had contained wine made from grapes. The ancient tipple was likely sweet, strong and medicinal—certainly not your average Beaujolais.

If the researchers’ theories are correct, winemaking may have originated in Canaan and been exported to Egypt, where the oldest known wine cellar, dated to 3,000 B.C., during the Old Kingdom, was found. From the description the wines once housed in Tel Kabri sound like they tasted like an herbal liqueur. Bleh.

If they recreate the flavor, however, I expect Trader Joe’s will soon offer it as “Pharaoh Joe’s.”

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A 16th century mechanical monk:


From the description at Retronaut, where you can see more pictures:

An automaton of a monk, 15 inches in height. Driven by a key-wound spring, the monk walks in a square, striking his chest with his right arm, raising and lowering a small wooden cross and rosary in his left hand, turning and nodding his head, rolling his eyes, and mouthing silent obsequies. From time to time, he brings the cross to his lips and kisses it. After over 400 years, he remains in good working order. Tradition attributes his manufacture to the mechanician to Emperor Charles V. The story is told that the emperor’s son King Philip II, praying at the bedside of a dying son of his own, promised a miracle for a miracle, if his child be spared. And when the child did indeed recover, Philip kept his bargain by having hismechanician construct a miniature penitent homunculus.”

I can imagine so many freakish, frightening, nigh blasphemous scenarios and stories involving “Brother Tock.” Make him life-size and he’s the hideous “secret priest” in the haunted cathedral. Or he’s still miniature, a powerful counselor behind the throne, literally at the monarch’s ear — advising him of who knows what? Is he a machine come to life, the product of Da Vinci-ian weird science? Possessed by a demon? Or is he a holy relic, powered by a bit of the heart of a saint and guarding against some unspeakable evil?

Even if so, he creeps me out. And I love it.

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His Majesty does not seem amused.

His Majesty does not seem amused.

As in the capital of Ancient Egypt. It seems the mystery surrounding the death of Pharaoh Ramses III has been solved:

Conspirators murdered Egyptian King Ramesses III by slitting his throat, experts now believe, based on a new forensic analysis.

The first CT scans to examine the king’s mummy reveal a cut to the neck deep enough to be fatal.

The secret has been hidden for centuries by the bandages covering the mummy’s throat that could not be removed for preservation’s sake.

The work may end at least one of the controversies surrounding his death.

Precisely how he died has been hotly debated by historians.

Ancient documents including the Judicial Papyrus of Turin say that in 1155BC members of his harem attempted to kill him as part of a palace coup.

Apparently there was a dispute over which of his sons (from different wives) would inherit the throne on Papa’s death. The losing mother and son weren’t happy and arranged for Ramses to get a second mouth. The article is quite worth reading; the forensic work was impressive.

Oh, and the conspirators? They got theirs:

The trial documents[8] show that many individuals were implicated in the plot.[9] Chief among them were Queen Tey and her son Pentaweret, Ramesses’ chief of the chamber, Pebekkamen, seven royal butlers (a respectable state office), two Treasury overseers, two Army standard bearers, two royal scribes and a herald. There is little doubt that all of the main conspirators were executed: some of the condemned were given the option of committing suicide (possibly by poison) rather than being put to death.[10] According to the surviving trials transcripts, 3 separate trials were started in total while 38 people were sentenced to death.[11] The tombs of Tiy and her son Pentaweret were robbed and their names erased to prevent them from enjoying an afterlife. The Egyptians did such a thorough job of this that the only references to them are the trial documents and what remains of their tombs.

Some of the accused harem women tried to seduce the members of the judiciary who tried them but were caught in the act. Judges who took part in the carousing were severely punished.[12]

Pentawere looks to have been strangled in an execution, so it doesn’t appear he was allowed suicide. Perhaps he was granted the right to choose the manner of his death, in deference to his rank.  It seems some mercy was shown him since, as the BBC article mentions, it looks like the unknown youth buried with Ramses III is Pentawere, although his body wasn’t given royal treatment.

Still this would have let him enter the afterlife. Many of the other conspirators, however, weren’t so “lucky:” they were burned alive and their ashes scattered in the streets. In the Ancient Egyptian religion, this meant their souls were destroyed too, as only mummification allowed survival after death. Thus, it wasn’t just execution, it was utter eradication. (Sorry, no link. Saw it yesterday but can’t find it, now.)

Now that’s what I call “extreme justice.”

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How Roman Emperors died

Augustus. He died of natural causes, lucky guy.

I love Roman History, from it’s beginnings with the foundation of the city in the 8th century BC, to its end with the fall of Constantinople in 1453*. With a history that long, you can imagine that, somewhere along the line, some of it rulers met some odd –and grisly– ends.

At The Awl, Josh Fruhlinger provides a “how they died” list for the emperors from Augustus Caesar through Romulus Augustulus, in what we classically think of as “The Roman Empire, 27 BC to 476 AD. The whole list is worth browsing (if you’re a Rome-geek like me), but here are a couple of my favorites:

Tiberius (37): His entourage thought he died of old age, announced his death, then smothered him in a panic when he suddenly regained consciousness. (“I’m not dead yet!”)

Carinus (285): Assassinated by an officer whose wife he had seduced. (That’ll teach him to keep it zipped.)

Leo II (474): Poisoned by his own mother so her husband could become emperor. (Mommie Dearest.)

Valerian (sometime after 260): Captured by the Persians and died in captivity; rumored to have been used as a human footstool by the Persian king, killed by having molten gold poured down his throat, then taxidermied. (Dude…)

*Yep, I count the Byzantine Empire as part of the Roman Empire. The political continuity was there, and “Romans” was how they referred to themselves to the bitter end. So there.

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I’ve always been interested in old, unsolved crimes — the so-called “cold cases.” Partly it’s the historian in me (by inclination and education), partly it’s natural curiosity about a puzzle (“Who dunnit?” And why?), and also it’s that unsatisfying feeling of Justice left undone, that no one has been held to account for what they did. I’ve even co-written a spec script for the now-canceled CBS series Cold Case about a 50-year old crime of mistaken identity and murder. (And we did a darned fine job, if I say so, myself.)

So you can imagine my interest in the news regarding the murder of little Maria Ridulph in 1957. Imagine: two young girls are playing outside  in a town that could have come straight out of the world of Norman Rockwell, a time when you didn’t have to lock your doors and children could play out of sight of their parents. Then a young man comes up to them and offers to play with them. Maria’s friend runs home to get some mittens and, when she comes back, both the young man and Maria are gone.

It was a case that captured national attention — even J. Edgar Hoover and President Eisenhower received daily updates. But Maria wasn’t found in time; her remains were discovered months later, over 100 miles away.

What had happened to her? Who dunnit?

Now, at last, we may get some answers:

Police suspected [Jack Daniel] McCullough, who lived less than two blocks from the Ridulphs and who fit the description of the man said to have approached the girls, Thomas said Friday. But McCullough seemed to have an alibi, claiming he took the train from Rockford to Chicago the day of the abduction.

His story fell apart last year after investigators reinterviewed a woman who dated him in 1957 and asked her to search through some personal items, the Seattle Times reported, citing court documents. She found an unused train ticket from Rockford to Chicago dated the day the girl went missing.

“Once his alibi crumbled, we found about a dozen other facts that helped us build our case,” Thomas said.

McCullough is now 71 and is awaiting extradition to Illinois. Ironically, this accused murderer went on to become a police officer, in which role he apparently went on to victimize others.

But it’s fascinating both how the case broke –an unused train ticket saved by an old girlfriend destroyed his alibi– and that investigators kept looking into this year after year, for over two generations, never completely giving up on the quest to do right by a 7-year old who never had the chance to grow up and have children of her own.

Of course, this won’t bring her back to life, nor give back to her friends and family what was ripped from them so long ago. But, even decades later, it’s right that the truth may at last have come out and her killer finally may be called to account.

Of Interest: An old article on LAPD’s cold case unit.

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Okay, I knew the Nazis were into all sorts of pseudoscience in pursuit of their crazy theories (and just to keep Schiklgruber happy) , but setting up a research institute to teach them to speak (real words, not “arf!”), read, and even read minds?


The dog school was called the Tier-Sprechschule ASRA and was based near Hanover. Led by headmistress Margarethe Schmitt, it was set up in the 1930s and continued throughout the war years.

Rolf, an Airedale terrier, reportedly ‘spoke’ by tapping his paw against a board, each letter of the alphabet being represented by a certain number of taps. He was said to have speculated about religion, learnt foreign languages, written poetry and asked a visiting noblewoman: ‘Could you wag your tail?’

The patriotic dog even expressed a wish to join the army – because he disliked the French.

A Dachshund named Kurwenal was said to speak using a different number of barks for each letter, and told his biographer he would be voting for Hindenburg.

And a German pointer named Don imitated a human voice to bark: ‘Hungry! Give me cakes.’

Dr Bondeson, whose book Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet Of Canine Curiosities is out now, said: ‘It is absolutely extraordinary stuff.

‘There were some very strange experiments going on in wartime Germany, with regard to dog-human communication.’

That last, I think, qualifies as an understatement.

Of course, it would explain that air of dictatorial authority our dogs exhibited whenever they wanted a cookie. Hmmm…

And while this is yet another example of a what a bunch of fruitcakes the Nazis were*, it’s also marvelous material for a “weird alternate history” roleplaying game. Not that I’ve ever considered such a thing

Click through for more Nazi weirdness.

*Albeit, armed, sociopathic, and extremely dangerous fruitcakes.

h/t Moe Lane

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And you thought they were all sweet and loveable — hah! In their early days, the Muppets made Miss Piggy look like a pacifist:

From 1957 to 1961, Henson made 179 commercials for Wilkins Coffee and other Wilkins products, including Community Coffee and Wilkins Tea. The ads were so successful and well-liked that they sparked a series of remakes for companies in other local markets throughout the 1960s.

The ads starred the cheerful Wilkins, who liked Wilkins Coffee, and the grumpy Wontkins, who hated it. Wilkins would often do serious harm to Wontkins in the ads — blowing him up, stabbing him with a knife, and smashing him with a club, among many other violent acts.

Remember: When the Muppet offers you some Wilkins Coffee — you take it!

via Bryan Preston

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Bet that ruined his day.

The Battle of Towton in 1461 may well have been the largest battle ever fought in the British Isles. Without a doubt, it was a crucial encounter in the War of the Roses. Now archeological excavations of the battlefield are showing just how vicious the fight was, and how much damage a medieval weapon could do:

The soldier now known as Towton 25 had survived battle before. A healed skull fracture points to previous engagements. He was old enough—somewhere between 36 and 45 when he died—to have gained plenty of experience of fighting. But on March 29th 1461, his luck ran out.

Towton 25 suffered eight wounds to his head that day. The precise order can be worked out from the direction of fractures on his skull: when bone breaks, the cracks veer towards existing areas of weakness. The first five blows were delivered by a bladed weapon to the left-hand side of his head, presumably by a right-handed opponent standing in front of him. None is likely to have been lethal.

The next one almost certainly was. From behind him someone swung a blade towards his skull, carving a down-to-up trajectory through the air. The blow opened a huge horizontal gash into the back of his head—picture a slit you could post an envelope through. Fractures raced down to the base of his skull and around the sides of his head. Fragments of bone were forced in to Towton 25’s brain, felling him.

His enemies were not done yet. Another small blow to the right and back of the head may have been enough to turn him over onto his back. Finally another blade arced towards him. This one bisected his face, opening a crevice that ran from his left eye to his right jaw (see picture). It cut deep: the edge of the blade reached to the back of his throat.

None of this movie-like “one thrust and you fall down” stuff. Nope. Not only were they going to kill this poor schmuck*, but they were going to hack him into bits, too. And, from the evidence, this occurred all over the killing field.

It reminds me of what I once read about the death of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The sanitized account is that he was killed when an arrow struck him in the eye. Bad enough. But the truth is that he was only sorely wounded by the arrow; while (probably) screaming in agony and trying to get the shaft out of his eye, he was surrounded by mounted Norman knights who hacked at him with sword and axe until he finally died. Talk about an undignified end** for a man who, by most accounts, was a decent king.

Back to Towton and archeology, be sure to read the article. It’s quite fascinating.

*Who, I’m sure, was trying to do the same thing to the other guys.

**Though not as undignified as the death of King George II: on the toilet of an aortic dissection while straining against constipation.

h/t Greyhawk Grognard

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A series of storms has been lashing the eastern Mediterranean lately, and one caused a cliff to collapse near Ashkelon, revealing a 2,000-year old Roman statue in gorgeous condition:

A long-lost Roman statue buried for thousands of years has been unearthed by massive winter storms that have lashed the coast of Israel this week.

The mysterious white-marble figure of a woman in toga and ‘beautifully detailed’ sandals was found in the remains of a cliff that crumbled under the force of 60mph winds and enormous 40ft waves.

The statue, which lacks a head and arms, is about 4ft tall and weighs 440lbs. It was found at the ancient port of Ashkelon, around 20 miles south of Tel Aviv.

It dates back to the Roman occupation of what was western Judea, between 1,800 and 2,000 years ago.

The incredible find, which was discovered by a passer-by, will now be put on display in a museum.

‘The sea gave us this amazing statue’, researcher Yigal Israeli said. ‘The statue fell into the sea when the ancient maritime cliff collapsed’.

Neat! I wonder what kind of hideous, ancient curse it bears?

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One reason I loved the original Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was its use of Renaissance Europe as a model for its setting, rather than the standard faux-medievalism of so many game settings. It was a time when guns and knights mingled on the battlefield, scientists could also be sorcerers, and the clothes were both outrageous and  gorgeous. The medieval world hadn’t quite vanished, yet the modern world hadn’t quite won. An age of exploration and intellectual and social ferment, the Renaissance is a great setting for roleplaying games.

Besides, how can you not like a story that combines, murder, infidelity, royal revenge, rage over rival theories of the solar system, mutilation, and psychic dwarf jesters all in one?

It’s “Amadeus” meets “Da Vinci Code” meets “Hamlet,” featuring a deadly struggle for the secret of the universe between Tycho, the swashbuckling Danish nobleman with a gold-and-silver prosthetic nose, and the not-yet-famous Johannes Kepler, his frail, jealous German assistant. The story also includes an international hit man, hired after a Danish prince becomes king and suspects Brahe of sleeping with his mother (and maybe being his father!).

For comic relief, there’s a beer-drinking pet elk wandering around Tycho’s castle, as well as a jester named Jepp, a dwarf who sits under Tycho’s table and is believed to be clairvoyant.


Tycho wins renown by identifying new stars, including a supernova, but after his royal patron dies, Tycho finds himself out of favor with the son and successor, Christian IV. Tycho goes to Prague and a new patron, Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor. As he prepares to publish his decades of celestial observations, Tycho hopes to prove that all the planets except Earth revolve around the Sun, which in turn revolves around the Earth.

To help with the calculations, he brings in Kepler, a 28-year-old with his own weird model of the universe. Kepler, a devout Lutheran as well as a Copernican, believes that God created cosmic “harmony” by arranging the planets’ orbits around the Sun so that they’re spaced at distances corresponding to certain geometrical figures (the five “Platonic solids”). Tycho introduces Kepler to the emperor and lobbies for his appointment as imperial mathematician. But before Kepler’s appointment is formalized, Tycho suddenly becomes terribly ill after a banquet and dies 11 days later, at the age of 54.

What killed him?

And in that one question lies the seed of a fantastic WFRP adventure.

Do read the whole thing. It’s wonderful

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The Tomb of Arnulf the Bloody


Back when Dungeons and Dragons* was my main fantasy roleplaying game, I grew bored with one of the staples of the genre, the big or “mega-” dungeon. Too many questions arose that hindered my willing suspension of disbelief. And so my game tastes wandered off in other directions, many toward the political and conspiratorial, and away from exploring the “dark below.” Dungeons, when used, became smaller and more believable: a short series of rooms under a castle, the tomb of  a forgotten king, or the crude lair of some goblins carved out of a hillside, for example.

But, while reading James’ posts at Grognardia has rekindled my interests in megadungeons a bit, my preference is still for the smaller “lair” types. Thus it was, to my delight, that James recently posted a link to a fascinating site, the Nottingham Caves Survey, which is systematically mapping the sandstone tunnels and caves, both natural and worked by Man, under that British city. Here’s a sample video of one, “Mortimer’s Hole:”

It has an interesting history, too, for fans of English kings, playing a crucial role in the life of Edward III.

Neat stuff! This site is a gold mine of resources for gamemasters looking for a bit of inspiration for smaller dungeons.

*(Can you believe, in all the years I ran that game, over two long campaigns, I never –never!– threw a dragon at the characters? D’oh!)

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that the map above was created by the very handy Random Dungeon Generator.

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Okay, someone knows me and my love for obscure presidents and must’ve dug deep into my Amazon wish list (Okay, okay. Lists…), because, when I opened an envelope that looked suspiciously like junk mail today, what should fall out but… a Warren G. Harding mouse pad! I laughed. 😀

I don’t know who sent this, but, if you read this blog, many thanks. You made my day.

RELATED: More about our 29th President. There’s no doubt he was weak and his administration plagued by scandal, but I think History has judged him a bit too harshly.

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Researchers in Israel claim to have developed a way to decipher previously unreadable ancient texts using technology similar to that of fingerprint readers:

The program uses a pattern recognition algorithm similar to those law enforcement agencies have adopted to identify and compare fingerprints.

But in this case, the program identifies letters, words and even handwriting styles, saving historians and liturgists hours of sitting and studying each manuscript.

By recognizing such patterns, the computer can recreate with high accuracy portions of texts that faded over time or even those written over by later scribes, said Itay Bar-Yosef, one of the researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“The more texts the program analyses, the smarter and more accurate it gets,” Bar-Yosef said.

I love history, and it always gives me a thrill when some lost ancient text is recovered. The possibility of a Google-like searchable database is fascinating. I can’t wait to see what this new technology uncovers.

Now watch. It will be some scribe’s shopping list. 😉

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