Tynwald – An Early Medieval Assembly Place and its Life History


Recently, I finally got to visit Tynwald Hill (Cronk Keeill Eoin), St John’s, on the Isle of Man. Located at the north-westerly end of the central valley running across the island from Peel to Douglas, this is the only open-air assembly site still operable in northern Europe. Each year, it is the focus of the Manx parliament’s ceremonial gatherings on Tynwald Day – 5th July.

dsc00467Historical evidence dates the use of the site back to the early 13th century, but the name – Thingvollr (parliament field)suggests its origins stretch back to perhaps the 10th century if not earlier. Historically, the practices on the site relate to swearing allegiance, declaring new laws and administering justice.

There are 5 dimensions to the site, as discussed in a succinct and superbly executed archaeological review by Tim Darvill (2004):

  1. A 25m-diameter, 3.6m-high four-stepped grassed mound. It has a central post…

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8 Images of a Frosted England

Heritage Calling

Baby, it’s cold outside!

Our Archive collection of over 9 million images is a window into the history of England’s archaeology, historic buildings and social history. You can use the archive to learn about your local area, and research well known historic buildings and sites. We hold some of the earliest photography ever taken.

Keep warm this winter with our pick of 8 archive images of the historic environment covered in a blanket of snow:

1. Rievaulx Abbey, Ryedale, North Yorkshire

28110_021-rievaulx-abbey-list-entry-1012065 © Historic England

At one time one of England’s most powerful Cistercian monasteries, the impressive ruins of Rievaulx Abbey is managed by English Heritage and is Grade I listed.

2. Highgate Cemetery, London

john-gay-highgate-cemetary-mf001673_14MF001673/09 © Historic England

The resting place of many famous residents and the home of some of the finest funerary architecture in the country, Highgate Cemetery is Grade I listed on the Register of Parks and…

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7 Spooky Tales from England’s Haunted Castles

Heritage Calling

Many of England’s historic buildings and monuments set an inspiring backdrop for mysterious tales of paranormal activity, their rich heritage feeding into narratives passed through generations. This Halloween we’re taking a look at how tales enjoyed at this time of year, of witches, ghosts, vampires and ghouls are knitted into English folklore, making their mark on our culture and historical places.

Here are 7 spooky stories linked to some of England’s oldest castles.

The Vampire of Alnwick Castle, Northumberland

bb78_06705 © Historic England BB78/06705

Writing in the 12th century, historian William of Newburgh chronicled how a former master of medieval Alnwick Castle would rise from his underground tomb and prowl the streets of the town at night, causing terror and disease. In panic, the local people dug up his shallow grave, revealing a bloated corpse which, when pierced with a spade, disgorged fresh blood, proving to them that it was…

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Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Listed Building

Heritage Calling

One of the most popular detectives in literature, Sherlock Holmes has seen many outings on the screen, and the BBC1 series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman makes use of many listed buildings in its filming.

Paul Backhouse, Head of Imaging at Historic England, takes us through a few of his favourites:

187 North Gower Street, London. Grade II listed

speedycafesherlock0365 © Maria Giulia Tolotti via Wikimedia commons

Of course no list would be complete without the home of the legendary detective himself, 221b Baker Street. However, 187 North Gower Street is used to film the TV series. Behind the 20th Century Regency style shop front is a Grade II listed building dating from around the 19th Century.

Bristol Baths, Bristol. Grade II listed

Appears in The Great Game. Series 1 Episode 3

dp030605 Interior view of the swimming pool at Bristol South Baths © Historic England

The stunning public…

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How to succeed in Ancient Rome

From becoming a master charioteer to keeping the gods on your side, making a success of yourself in Ancient Rome was no mean feat. In his new self-help book, Release Your Inner Roman, written from the perspective of a fictional Roman nobleman named Marcus Sidonius Falx, Dr Jerry Toner sets out the characteristics that have made the Romans the most successful people in history.

Here, writing for History Extra, Marcus Sidonius Falx shares his top tips for climbing the social ladder…

Mosaic depicting the poet Virgil sitting between the muses Clio and Melpomene. (

Mosaic depicting the poet Virgil sitting between the muses Clio and Melpomene. (Getty Images)

I. Learn a trade

If you are poor you will have to work hard to improve your financial position. But it is vital for you to understand which trades are suitable for a gentleman and which ones are unacceptably vulgar.
One highly undesirable job is that of tax gatherer. These people not only have to deal with the common herd but prey on them too. Another vulgar livelihood is hiring yourself out for paid employment, especially when it only involves mere manual labour. The wage these people receive is simply a symbol of their virtual slavery. We must also consider those involved in the retail trade as plebs. They buy from wholesalers then sell the goods immediately to members of the public for a profit, meaning the only way to make money is to misrepresent the true value of what’s on sale. Next come those engaged in skilled labour – there is nothing gentlemanly about a workshop.
However, the least respectable trades of all are those that cater for the physical and sensual pleasures of others – fishermen, fishmongers, butchers, cooks and chicken sellers. You can add to these perfumers, dancers and all celebrities.

A second-century bas-relief depicting a fruit seller. (Getty Images)

II. Invest in property

Owning land is the best form of wealth. Buy ponds, hot springs and other areas that are heavily used by clothes washers, all of which generate large profits. Or invest in urban property. The best way to do this is to wait for one of the fires that frequently break out in Rome. You should then rush to the scene and make extremely low offers to the owners of houses in the vicinity, who will often accept out of fear that the fire will spread and leave them penniless.
Sadly this works both ways – fire means that urban property is not always a safe investment. City properties generate a very good income but the risks are also great. Two of my own shops have recently fallen down and the rest may be about to do likewise. Even the mice have moved out. Obviously this doesn’t bother a man of my great wealth, but there are many others who are constantly thrown into a panic about the state of their urban properties.

III. Be a lender

Lending money is always profitable. The usual rate for loans secured against Italian land is six per cent and for unsecured loans is 12 per cent, or one per cent per month. However, lenders have a heavy burden of worry. If you lend money to a trader you will spend anxious nights worrying about every wind that gets up or distant clap of thunder, fearing that it signifies the loss of his ships at sea.
If one of your debtors does default, you must handle him severely. As you are entitled to do by law, you should sell all of his possessions, even down to the very clothes he is wearing. If this still fails to raise the necessary capital to cover his debts, you should sell his children into slavery. Healthy infants and children fetch a decent price and the sale will also act as a warning to others who are in your debt not to consider defaulting on their obligations.
Food shortages also offer considerable opportunities to make money. In such periods, the price of grain rises substantially and it is possible to make short-term unsecured loans for rates of up to 5 per cent per annum.

IV. Become a charioteer

If you are poor and want to make it big, consider becoming a charioteer. They can earn extraordinary amounts of money. The prize money for Rome’s best races ranges from 15 to 60 thousand sesterces [Roman currency]. One of my old lawyer friends complains that a charioteer can earn a hundred times what he can.
The most successful driver I have come across was a man named Diocles, who came from Lusitania in Iberia. He raced for 24 years during the reigns of the divine emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, before retiring at the age of 42. Diocles won 1,462 races out of a total of 4,257 runs. His career earnings came to an astonishing 35,863,120 sesterces, which made him one of the wealthiest men in Rome.
But be under no illusions: charioteers earn their money. Controlling a four-horse chariot is not easy. The reins of two horses are bound round your body and you must use your weight to pull them into position. If you crash, you will be dragged down by these reins and trampled, unless you can manage to cut yourself free.

Charioteers in starting position, depicted in a third century mosaic. (Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

V. Marry well

When it comes to selecting a woman, think hard about the possible candidates. Wealth, high birth and beauty play no part in a happy marriage. They do nothing to generate interest or sympathetic thought in a wife towards her husband – indeed, the very opposite could be said to be true. Nor do they help when it comes to producing children. You should check to see that her family has a good track record in producing healthy, male heirs.
When it comes to a girl’s physique, all that matters is that she is healthy, looks normal and has a capacity for hard work. If she has a strong body she will be better suited to physical labour and child-bearing. As for her character, you should look for a girl who exhibits self-control and virtue. Of course, these are also qualities that you should look to display yourself in your own conduct.

VI. Host elegant dinner parties

Holding dinner parties is a fundamental part of being a successful Roman. There are, however, many pitfalls that await a social parvenu if he is not to appear crude and inelegant.
Firstly, make sure the seating plan reflects the status of the diners. Those of the highest rank should be next to you, with those of the lowest status reclining the furthest away. If you are entertaining a large number of guests, you will want to have the finest dishes served to the top table. Yet be careful not to do this too obviously in case you should appear mean. Worse still is if you apportion the wine in decanters, with the finest Falernian wine [wine originating from a district of Campania, Italy] put in large quantities at the top table while only small quantities of wine vinegar are placed before everyone else. Too little wine is bound to breed resentment. Remember, manners make the Roman.
During dinner be sure to entertain the others guests with examples of your wit and charm. Wealth makes a man feel very pleased with himself and you should be careful not to lecture. A restrained elegance should be your aim. I had one guest recently who stuffed himself during the entire meal. Then, the moment the dinner had ended, he swept up all the leftovers into his napkin: teats from a sow’s udder, pork ribs, a pigeon dripping with sauce (and even a meadow bird carved for two and a whole pike!) were all crammed into a greasy napkin for his slave to carry home. It was most embarrassing, and the only thing the rest of the guests could do was recline at the table and pretend we hadn’t noticed.

A Pompeii fresco portraying a feast scene. (Getty Images)

VII. Pay for gladiator shows

If you make it big, host some games. The people love nothing more, and you will win great popularity as a result. What shouts go up as each fighter thrusts and parries the other’s blows. What cries and groans go with the inevitable wounds. Best of all is when a fallen gladiator raises his finger and asks for mercy – you can hear a pin drop. Then everyone erupts into a flurry of cheering or booing, shaking their togas and indicating whether your thumb should be turned up or down.
You must milk the moment. All eyes are on you. You should wait to see what the crowd wants, then keep them in suspense a little longer. Finally, make your decision with a dramatic gesture, clearly visible to all. Mercy means the gladiator lives to fight another day. But if he has failed to win over the crowd then he must meet his fate like a man. Throwing his head back to expose his neck, he must receive the downward thrust of his opponent’s sword with all his body. He is at your mercy.

Gladiators depicted in a stone carving. (Getty Images)

VIII. Keep the gods on your side

Being successful in Rome takes moral courage, but ultimately this counts for nothing if you do not also have the support of the gods. And how do you win over the gods? What can you, a weak human being, do to make them deign to notice your call for help and bother to respond to it? Quite simply: if you give the gods something, they will give you something in return.
This is a message that you must reinforce continually through your actions. Make sacrifices and offer the gods a variety of offerings – whether prayers, vows or animals – in the belief that this will please them and encourage them to intervene on your behalf. Yet, it does no good to offer sacrifices or consult the gods without using the correct ceremonies and the right words for the particular occasion. Some words are appropriate for seeking favourable omens, others for getting help or warding off misfortune.
There are as many rituals as there are activities and more gods than you can imagine. Even the entrances to houses have three gods assigned to them: the doors belong to Forculus, the hinges to Cardea and the threshold to Limentinus. To be sure, the gods will not always listen to you or be influenced by your gifts. But if you maintain a consistent pattern of appropriate piety they will, in the long run, grant you their favour in return. This mutually beneficial relationship between the weak and the powerful is the driving force, not only of life on earth, but the very universe itself.
Release Your Inner Roman is written by Dr Jerry Toner, a fellow in classics at Churchill College, Cambridge, and published by Profile. Toner’s previous books include How to Manage Your Slaves and The Ancient World. His next book, Emperors and Crooks, will be published by Profile in 2018.

In bed with the Romans: a brief history of sex in Ancient Rome

The sexual predilections of people in Ancient Rome and the debauchery of Roman emperors and their empresses are explored in a new book written by Paul Chrystal

Mosaic of a satyr and nymph. © The Print Collector/Alamy Stock Photo

Mosaic of a satyr and nymph, House of Faun, Pompeii, Italy. Artist unknown. © The Print Collector/Alamy Stock Photo

Drawing conclusions from literature, ancient graffiti, inscriptions and the visual arts, Chrystal’s latest work, In Bed with the Romans, explores the Roman relationship with sex.

The book describes love and marriage; the role of the wife in the family and in religion (as well as in bed); plus sexual medicine, homosexuality, pornography and pederasty.

Here, writing for History Extra, Chrystal briefly explores the history of sex in Ancient Rome…

According to Philip Larkin’s best-known poem, Annus Mirabilis, 1963 is the year in which sex was invented in Britain. For the Romans it would have been 750 BC.

Of course, like us, Romans and Latins had been having sex forever but, according to Roman historian Titus Livius Patavinus (aka ‘Livy’), soon after the founding of Rome (in 753 BC), sex attained indelible and inextricable political and historical importance in the annals of Rome.

Right from the start, sex was linked to momentous constitutional development for the Roman state. The first instance was the 750 BC rape of the Sabine women – a carefully executed example of nation building in which the Romans replenished their dwindling supply of fertile women by carrying off the wives and daughters of the neighbouring Sabines.

Soon after, sex was implicated first in the overthrow of the tyrannical monarchy and the establishment of the republic, and then in the restoration of that republic so pivotal to Roman democracy. During the former, virtuous Lucretia [a legendary Roman matron whose fate played a key role in the transition from a Roman Kingdom into a Roman Republic] took her own life in 510 BC after being raped by Sextus Tarquinius, son of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, last king of Rome.

‘Lucretia and Tarquinius’, c1560s. A print from Titian Paintings and Drawings, introduction by Hans Tietze, Phaidon Press, Vienna, 1937. Found in the collection of the Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Vienna, Austria. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

In the latter, virginal Verginia was stabbed to death in 449 BC by her own father to avoid the shame of violation (stuprum) by Appius Claudius, one of the decemviri [an official commission of 10 men].

Preservation of sexual virtue – pudicitia – cost Lucretia and Verginia their lives; so important was pudicitia to Roman values, history and society. Later, Roman historians like Livy embellished the legendary women of the past with the sexual mores they insisted their contemporary women should enshrine.

A sense of duty

Sex for most Romans was undoubtedly gratifying, but it was also a duty: largely speaking, it was probably more gratifying for the men and more a duty for their women. Men delighted in displaying their vir – manhood and sexual prowess – while women obliged by submitting to serial childbirth – a production line of babies, ideally boys, to maintain the family line and keep the battlefield and farm-land stocked with recruits. Baby girls, on the other hand, were costly and contributed little or nothing to the family income; moreover, they would require an expensive dowry one day.

Indeed, marriage itself was a lopsided affair. According to the men, women who married should not expect any pleasure or enjoyment – they tied the knot simply to procreate. Moreover, the silent, compliant and subservient wife was expected to turn a blind eye to her husband’s sexual infelicities, while the man could philander as much as he liked so long as the mistress was unmarried, or, if with a boy, he was over a certain age. Brothels, prostitutes and dancing girls were considered ‘fair game’, as were older males – with the one crucial proviso that it was you who did the penetrating. Being passive and being penetrated was considered women’s work: men who submitted were considered deficient in vir and in virtus (virtue): they were denounced and reviled as effeminate.

So same-sex in Ancient Rome was thought to be fine for a man (albeit with conditions), but same-sex between women was unconditionally execrated. ‘Lesbian’ sex often assumed penetration, which was considered man’s work, so a woman adopting this role (and her submissive recipient) were castigated in equal measure. The Latin for ‘Lesbian’ women was tribades or fricatores – “those (women) that rubbed”.

Changing views

By the end the Republic, however, illicit and extra-marital sex was seen to be damaging and rampant. Augustus, as first emperor, noticed this and, although he himself was not averse to whisking off other men’s wives at the odd dinner party for a spot of hors d’oeuvre, he tried to restore some good old-fashioned family values with (largely unsuccessful) legislation relating to marriage, divorce and birth rate boosting.

Augustus’s sexual activity was, however, easily eclipsed by his wayward daughter Julia, who is said to have fornicated on the very podium from which her father had delivered his moralistic legislation. To Julia, life was a beach – her analogy that she never took a lover on board unless her boat was full (that is, she was pregnant) rebounded badly: her father eventually exiled her to the remote (and man-free) island of Pandataria, off the coast of Campania.

Marble bust of Julia, daughter of Emperor Augustus. (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)


In some ways, Julia set the sexual benchmark for the early decades of the empire. Years earlier, Julius Caesar had popularised the rage for celebrity cross-dressing when, aged 20, he lived the life of a girl in the court of King Nicomedes IV, and was later referred to as ‘Queen of Bithynia’, “every woman’s man and every man’s woman”.

Tiberius, meanwhile, dressed as a woman for his debaucheries on Capri, and Caligula sometimes showed up at banquets dressed as Venus. Nero, full of remorse after kicking to death his pregnant wife, Poppaea Sabina, sought out a surrogate who resembled her – and found Sporus: not a woman, but a young man. Nero’s people castrated the ex-slave, and the couple married. Sporus joined Nero in bed with Pythagoras (another freedman Nero had married), who nightly played the role of husband in their troilism. Sporus routinely accompanied Nero decked out as his empress.

Nero, who is said to have enjoyed incest with his mother, Agrippina the Younger, starred in the notorious banquets of Tigellinus: draped in the skins of wild animals, he would be released from a cage to ‘mutilate’ orally the genitals of men and women bound to stakes.


Let us turn now to Messalina, empress to Claudius: queen of the imperial whores, she is said to have regularly snuck out of bed while Claudius slept to visit a fetid brothel, using the working name ‘Lycisca’ (‘Wolf Bitch’). Roman author Pliny the Elder tells the distasteful story of Messalina’s epic orgy, in which she challenged a veteran prostitute to a 24-hour sex marathon. The empress won with 25 partners – one client per hour.

Roman empress Messalina naked in the Lupanar brothel with a soldier. Walls decorated with erotic paintings and statues. Colour printed illustration by Auguste Leroux from Felicien Champsaur’s novel L’Orgie Latine (Roman Orgy), Fasquelle, Paris, 1903. (Photo by Florilegius/SSPL/Getty Images)

On a more mundane level, the poet Ovid insisted that some elite women were partial to ‘a bit of rough’ – a sentiment echoed by Petronius in his Satyricon [a novel about Roman society], which describes how some upper-class women burn with desire for men of the lower orders – dancers, bin-men and gladiators.

Sex also features prominently throughout the short “unspeakably disgusting life” of emperor Elagabalus (AD c203–22), a notorious transgressor and deviant, beset by gender confusion and depravity. However, he could not be accused of lacking a sense of humour; according to the sensationalist Historia Augusta [a collection of biographies of Roman emperors, heirs, and claimants from Hadrian to Numerianus]:

“he took lust in every orifice of his body, sending out agents in search of men with large penises to satisfy his passions… The size of a man’s organ often determined the post he was given. He habitually locked his friends up when they were drunk and suddenly, in the night, let into the room lions, leopards and bears – surreptitiously rendered harmless – so that when they woke up these friends would find at dawn, or worse, during the night, [wild animals] in the same bedroom as themselves. Several of them died [of shock] as a result of this”.

Things went further still when Elagabalus offered huge fortunes to any physician who could give him permanent female genitalia or, in the words of Roman historian Cassius Dio, “to contrive a woman’s vagina in his body by means of an incision”.

Fast-forward to AD 525 and sex was still a major aspect of Roman life. Theodora, who was empress to Justinian I, worked in a Constantinople brothel performing mime and obscene burlesque. One of her star roles was as Leda in Leda and the Swan; this involved lying on her back while other actors scattered barley on her groin. The barley was then pecked-up by geese masquerading as Zeus. Inviting fellow actors to copulate with her on stage was another of Theodora’s party pieces.

But Theodora was later transformed into virtual sainthood with her raft of social reforms protecting women from physical and sexual abuse and discrimination, enacted when she assumed the position of empress.

Paul Chrystal is the author of In Bed with the Romans, published by Amberley Publishing. To find out more, click here.

5 things you (probably) didn’t know about the crusades

Beginning in the late 11th century, the crusades were a series of military expeditions mounted by western European Christians in a bid to conquer the Holy Land. The first was called in November 1095 by Pope Urban II and while there is some disagreement among historians as to which campaigns to consider ‘crusades’, it is undeniable that the movement had a profound impact on eastern and western cultures and societies

Siege of a town led by Godefroy de Bouillon (c1060-1100), one of the leaders of the First Crusade (1095-1099), showing Saracens firing arrows at crusaders as they attempt to scale the walls. From the manuscript of Roman de Godefroy de Bouillon. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)


Here, Dr Aysu Dincer Hadjianastasis from the University of Warwick brings you five lesser-known facts about the crusades…

1) When caught in the crossfire, women didn’t hesitate to don arms and armour

Whether women took active part in battle during the crusader period is a much-contested issue. While there is some evidence that corpses of Latin women wearing armour were spotted among the dead on the battlefield, historians have queried whether precious war gear would be ‘wasted’ on women who were unlikely to receive military training.

However, in desperate situations, whether the women had an interest in fighting or not, they simply had to find ways to defend and protect themselves. Thomas of Beverley’s poem on the deeds of his sister Margaret offers a fascinating insight to a female pilgrim’s fight for survival in a dangerous place. Margaret had travelled to the Holy Land on pilgrimage and was in Jerusalem when it was besieged by Saladin in 1187. The poem tells us that she was able to avail herself of a breastplate but in the absence of a helmet she simply improvised with a cauldron!

On the Muslim side, Usamah talks about an instance when a castle owned by his family was attacked and conquered by the Ismailis. The Ismaili leader tells Usamah’s cousin Shahib that he will turn a blind eye if he goes back home, gathers his belongings and leaves the castle. As Shahib goes back home to collect his valuables he is startled by a figure who enters the house wearing a mail hauberk and a helmet, a sword and shield. The figure throws off the helmet, and lo and behold, it’s Shahib’s aging aunt. She berates Shahib for his cowardice and for letting down the family honour by considering running away and leaving all the women behind.

It is interesting that both sources were written by men, who praise women for their ingenuity without the slightest trepidation – despite the fact that these women’s actions dealt a sound blow to accepted medieval gender roles!

2) During the crusader period medical knowledge was highly valued and constituted one of the crucial points of contact between eastern and western cultures

The memoirs of Usamah ibn Munqidh (1095–1188), The Book of Contemplation, are a goldmine of information about daily life in the Holy Land and include many anecdotes (some serious, some less so) on various forms of cultural exchange between the Latin crusaders and the natives of the Holy Land.

It would be fair to describe Usamah as a person who was ‘born’ to the crusades. Born on 4 July 1095, he spent his long and adventurous life living side-by-side with the residents of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. In one anecdote, Usamah talks about an artisan from Shayzar named Abu al-Fath, whose son was suffering from scrofula [a tuberculosis infection of the lymph nodes in the neck]. While Abu al-Fath was in Antioch on a business trip with his son, a Frankish man noticed the sores on the boy’s neck and offered them a remedy (“burn some uncrushed leaves of glasswort, soak the ashes in olive oil and strong vinegar”).

While the anonymous Frankish man seemed to be genuinely motivated by his wish to cure the boy, he was also keen to keep the ‘copyright’: Abu al-Fath had to swear by his religion that he wouldn’t make money out of anyone that he cured using the recipe.

It appears that the remedy was indeed new to the Muslims, and as it cured Abu al-Fath’s son its success ensured further circulation. The remedy was passed on to Usamah, who tells us that he himself used it on a number of sufferers. Through his memoirs, the remedy found its way to future generations.

c1275, a knight of the crusades in chain mail is kneeling in homage, his helmet being held above his head. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

3) Some crusader medical advice included remedies that were hardly palatable

For instance, the 14th-century anatomist and royal physician Guido da Vigevano offered slug soup as antidote to aconite poisoning. In 1335 da Vigevano produced a text (Texaurus Regis Francie) urging the French king Philip VI to launch a new crusade. The text includes technical plans, drawings for siege engines and a wind-propelled chariot, as well as medical advice, including the above-mentioned solution to aconite poisoning – which despite sounding unpleasant, is actually very ingenious.

Aconite, commonly known as monkshood and still found in cottage gardens, is a highly poisonous plant and during the crusader period it was used by the Muslims against the crusaders. Why slugs, though? On noticing some slugs that were feeding on aconite leaves, da Vigevano seems to have experienced a light-bulb moment. He collected and boiled the slugs, concocting a soup out of them, which he first tested on animals. After achieving satisfactory results he took some aconite and tried the antidote himself.

Da Vigevano proudly reported that while the first two doses made him vomit, by the third dose he was free of the poison. Sadly, he never found out whether it was worth going through this nasty trial, as Philip VI’s crusade failed to materialise.


4) When all was lost and they were taken hostages, negotiation skills were all that mattered to crusaders

These skills undeniably came to the fore during the Seventh Crusade (1248–54). Initiated, led and largely financed by King Louis IX of France, the Seventh Crusade was one of the most logistically sophisticated expeditions to the East. While it held great promise at the start, it ended in abject failure.

Louis IX’s acts during the crusade were documented by his close friend Jean de Joinville, who was privy to most of the negotiations and decision-making. Joinville provides us with one of the liveliest and interesting accounts in crusader history: he was obsessed with detail, blessed with a prodigious and photographic memory and had a passionate interest in clothing. To top it all, he had a barely concealed crush on Louis IX’s wife, Queen Marguerite of Provence, who was also on crusade. Most chronicles of the crusades offer their audiences countless tales of individual bravery and sacrifice – Joinville does this too, but also gives us a king battling a bout of dysentery so severe that a hole has to be cut in his drawers.

Louis IX of France was captured in Egypt during the Seventh Crusade in April 1250. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

After a doomed expedition up the Nile to take the town of Mansurah, the crusaders try to retreat to Damietta but are forced to abandon the attempt. Joinville’s party realise that they are running out of options and have to surrender. A crusader among the group clearly sees this as an act of cowardice and argues that rather than giving themselves up as hostages they should all let themselves be slain and go to paradise. Joinville bluntly reports: “but we none of us heeded his advice”.

Instead, once he is taken hostage Joinville does everything he can think of so that his life will be spared: he strikes a kinship with a Muslim man, lies to his captors that he is the king’s cousin, fabricates a relationship to Emperor Frederick II and quotes Saladin when it suits him (“never kill a man once you had shared your bread and salt with him”). In the end it’s Queen Marguerite’s powers of negotiation that save them: she hands Damietta over to the Mamluks in exchange for her husband’s life and Louis pays 400,000 pounds for his army to be released.



5) The royal women of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem played crucial roles in political life, which sometimes meant that they had to endure successive marriages

Royal marriage was an important political tool in the survival of the kingdom. The prize for the highest number of marriages goes to Queen Isabella I of Jerusalem, who married four times. All her husbands, bar one, were eliminated from the picture quite dramatically. She was forced to divorce her first husband, Humphrey of Toron, who was not only extremely reluctant to step up to the throne but also perceived to be too young, too intellectual and somewhat effeminate by the nobility. The divorce meant a loss of face for Humphrey, but at least he remained alive.

Isabella’s second husband, Conrad of Montferrat, was not so lucky: he was assassinated by the much-feared Assassins, an Ismaili sect. Isabella married her third husband, Henry of Champagne, while heavily pregnant with Conrad’s child and just a week after his death. This marriage lasted for five years and ended when Henry died falling from a castle window. Isabella’s final husband, Aimery of Lusignan, died of “a surfeit of white mullet”: quite a preventable death.

How do we explain these serial marriages and what do we know about the woman who endured them? Was Isabella a helpless, romantic victim who was simply acting as a vessel in the transmission of legitimacy? Indeed, her life corresponds to the most turbulent period in the history of the crusader states: she witnessed the rise of Saladin and the fall of Jerusalem; she saw the Third Crusade come and go and Cyprus conquered, colonised and turned into a new kingdom.

The man who married Isabella would be king, so he had to be an experienced political ruler and an exceptional military leader. The decision wasn’t Isabella’s to make, however, as the barons were the active kingmakers, but she appears to have accepted their choices. By the end of her reign the kingdom had found stability and her eldest daughter’s right to rule was secure.

Similar to Margaret of Beverley’s cauldron-come-helmet in 1187, Isabella’s marriages can be seen as improvisations to protect the kingdom. The cauldron saved a pilgrim; Isabella’s marriages ensured the survival of the kingdom at a perilous time.

Dr Aysu Dincer Hadjianastasis is a teaching fellow in medieval and early modern history at the University of Warwick.