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Nov 26, 2012

Medieval Mondays: The Iron Arm of Götz von Berlich

"I will crush you."
The German knight Götz von Berlich (c.1480-1562) had a nasty reputation. The veteran of numerous battles, he estimated that he had fought 15 feuds in his own name and many others for friends. In 1525 joined the German Peasant's revolt and led the peasants against the Holy Roman Empire.
"The peasants are revolting, and I'm revolting too!"
Perhaps he got his bad attitude when he lost his right hand and forearm during the siege of Landshuf in 1504. A cannonball hit his sword, making it swipe down to cut off his own limb! That's enough to put anyone in a permanently bad mood.
Luckily, craftsmen in this period were skilled at making prosthetics for just such occasions. They made him an iron limb that could open and close it fingers, so it could still be used in battle. He became known at Götz of the Iron Hand. His hand was so well made it could even hold a pen. Perhaps he used it when he wrote his memoirs.
Just goes to show that the late Medieval/early Renaissance period was more sophisticated than we generally believe.

Images courtesy Wikipedia.

Nov 19, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Visiting Ukhaidher Castle, Iraq

Today, our sometimes guest blogger Sean McLachlan returns with an amazing story. He just got back from 17 days in Iraq. That's right, he actually visited Iraq as a tourist. Follow the link to read his fascinating series. Today he's talking to us about exploring an early medieval castle in the desert.

About 50 km (30 miles) southwest of Karbala, there's a mystery standing in the middle of the desert. It's called Ukhaidher ("small green place") Castle and is said to have been built in the 8th century, right at the beginning of the Abbasid dynasty. An oasis stands nearby, hence the name.

Beyond that, little is known about Ukhaidher Castle. Some believe it actually dates from before the Islamic era, to the time of a Christian Arab named Ukhaidher who was expelled from Arabia in 635 AD. Others say it was a Muslim hunting lodge, or a retirement palace for an aged prince.

Whether it has its origins in the pre-Islamic era or not, it was certainly used by the Abbasids and it certainly is impressive. Its walls stand 21 meters (69 ft.) high.
A very early mosque on the site created controversy when it was excavated. The miqrab, or niche that is supposed to face Mecca, appears to face Jerusalem instead. This isn't the only such mosque from the early days of Islam not to face Mecca. The Iraqi archaeologist who discovered this had his funding cancelled and never got to publish his findings. Unfortunately when I visited I didn't have a compass with me, so I can't say for sure where it points. I did get to climb the partially ruined minaret and take some shots from a good vantage point.
Like many archaeological sites, it was heavily restored during Saddam Hussein's rule, more with an eye for grandeur than historical accuracy. The castle was in good enough condition, however, that this particular reconstruction is better than most.
Readers into all things medieval might want to check out my post on exploring medieval Baghdad.

Thanks for having me, A.J.! Besides blogging for Gadling, I run Civil War Horror, dedicated to dark fiction, the American Civil War, and the Wild West. Guest bloggers are always welcome. I'm the author of numerous books including A Fine Likeness, a historical novel set in Civil War Missouri, and The Night the Nazis Came to Dinner, a collection of dark speculative fiction. The electronic editions are both on sale at the moment. You can also check me out on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and my Amazon author's page.
 All photos copyright Sean McLachlan.

Nov 12, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Armor wasn't as cumbersome as commonly thought

One of the common misconceptions about medieval armor was that it was incredibly cumbersome. An oft-repeated tale was that knights had to use a crane to get themselves onto their horses. This seems to come from Henry VIII, who at his fattest could barely move himself, let alone a load of armor.

As this video briefly and clearly shows, armor had a lot more movement than generally thought.

In The Face of Battle, John Keegan points out that the load for the average infantryman stayed the same for much of history. The Tommies going "over the top" in World War One carried just as much weight as an armed and armored medieval knight. Both of these warriors could climb, get up from a prone position, and manage a lumbering run.

The real problem for knights was heat exhaustion. With the faceplate down and most of the body covered, medieval knights often passed out from their exertions. This was an especially serious issue when fighting the Crusades in the Middle East.

For more detailed coverage, check out this lecture by Dirk H. Breiding, Assistant Curator, Department of Arms and Armor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nov 6, 2012

New evidence for Vikings in North America

Recent excavations have found new evidence for Norsemen in Canada.

National Geographic reports that an archaeologist has reexamined the artifacts found at four sites in northern Canada and thinks they're Norse. Back in the 1960s, some strange cloth was found from sites belonging to the Dorset culture, the predecessors of the modern Inuit. The cloth didn't look Dorset and when it was looked at again this year, the researcher discovered it looked just like cloth woven in Viking Greenland in the 14th century.

Other evidence was found too. Whetstones that had lain in a museum for decades were analyzed with modern methods and found to have been used to sharpen bronze. The Dorset culture had virtually no metal tools. Only when they were lucky enough to come across meteoric iron would they have metal to work with.

Early researchers also found a sizable building that was much bigger than Dorset structures but the right size for a Viking hall. This was before the 1960s discovery of L'anse aux Meadows, the Viking settlement on Newfoundland. Since back then the idea that Norsemen came to the New World was only supposition, the evidence wasn't looked at as closely as it should have been.

As yet there's no smoking gun, but it does raise some interesting possibilities. The four sites from which the new evidence comes range over a thousand miles from northern Baffin to northern Labrador. The Norsemen, or their trade goods, seem to have gotten around.

Besides L'anse au Meadows and the Baffin Island finds, there is some fuzzy evidence for more widespread Norse explorations of North America. This 13th or 14th century carved figurine, called the "Bishop of Baffin", shows a person in clothing quite unlike that worn by the Dorset or Inuit cultures, yet strangely reminiscent of a European cloak. Also check out my post on the Maine Penny.