Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Five Mistaken Beliefs About the Dark Ages

Mistaken Belief the First – That Vikings wore helms with horns on them.

Why should any soul not trying to enter the Gates of Heaven ere his time have anything on his helm that would make it easier to knock off his head? Helms in our time, whether Saxon or Dane, were only adorned by the most foolhardy , and never with horns.

Mistaken Belief the Second – That Celtic warriors painted themselves with woad

Those who believe this base that belief on the word for the Pictish people, whose name means “painted”. Now prithee explain to me how one may travel the road from that fact to the destination that throughout the history of Scotland their warriors painted themselves blue? For that is what you shall have to do, and without any proof you shall have to climb a very steep path.

Mistaken Belief the Third – That Charlemagne was and spoke French

In my time - and the great king lives at this very time - there is no country called France and no language that is French. There is the Kingdom of the Franks, ‘tis true, but that language has not developed. It shall develop in Gascony from a sort of poor Latin, but Charlemagne himself spoke a Germanic language, Frankish. And so did the great warrior, his nephew, Roland.

Mistaken Belief the Fourth - That there was a King Arthur

Verily, I know that I shall be taken to task by many a reader for stating that there was no King Arthur. It is a fondly held myth, especially by those who wish to remain in Power by claiming descent. There is no evidence of such a man in any record, even in the writings of the Venerable Bede. The closest one might come to such a hero is an obscure Celtic chief who may serve to bolster some claims, but otherwise has no relation to the legends.

Mistaken Belief the Fifth – That King Offa of Mercia was a Moslem

King Offa of Mercia minted the first gold coins in Western Europe. One of those coins bears his handsome profile on the obverse and Arabic writing on the reverse, translated in part to a reference to Allah. This, my good friend, is because his Mercian majesty’s mint copied a Byzantine coin in order to lend credibility for those traders who had only known Norse silver coins used in England ere that time.

Leofwen Taverner of Eoforwic

Originally published in the Blue Lady Tavbern blog, soon to be Alehouse Tales. Check at Shield-wall Books for release date.


  1. I love the story of English Islamic coinage, which I believe I first read in a work by Churchill. By a similar logic, modern British coinage shows a widespread use of Latin.
    I am rather more perturbed about the woad story. I should have expected that the Picts were called "painted" because they were - is there really no record of the use of woad? They were also reputed to fight naked, which I assume refers to the use of the kilt rather than a proper man's pair of trousers!

  2. I'm not exactly "upset" by your assertion that there "wasn't a King Arthur". However, I'd just like to say that there probably was such a person, though he probably wasn't in any way, shape or form, much like the (usual) medievalized version, which grew out of a number of localized folk and historical traditions. Whoever "King Arthur" may have been, he probably ruled a "kingdom" no larger than the size of King County, Washington, and his influence was probably just about as local. He might not even have been called Arthur, but I suspect there is some bases for the existence of such a person.

    I would also utter a word or two of caution about Roland, whoever he was. There was a historical personage called Roland, and he did apparently live in the same era as Charlemagne. Whether or not he was Charlemagne's nephew is probably questionable, however, and he didn't exactly die the heroic death the Song of Roland attributes to him; rather, he and his men were apparently ambushed by some Basques, in the Pyrenees. I've read the reason for this, but I've forgotten exactly what it was. In any case, he was killed by Basques, not raging Muslims.

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