The Middle Ages Unlocked ~ Guest post

I have been offered the opportunity by Amberley Publishing to open up my blog to Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania, authors of the book “The Middle Ages Unlocked” and their ungoing promotion blog tour. Due to this you find a guest post below on the topic of folklore written by Dr Gillian Pollack.

Further down you will find more information on the two authors, the book and a link to where you can find even more information. Enjoy!

~    ~  ~Pilgrim

Folklife in the Middle Ages was rich and varied. It peeks its head up from time to time in literature, in archive documents, in archaeology. We don’t have a complete picture, but we have fascinating tidbits that give us an inkling of how people saw the world around them.

When scholars write about folklife, they often tell the stories that appear in literature and chronicles. There were two green children who came out of the ground, for example. The boy died, but the girl lived and lost her green colour. King Harold didn’t die at Hastings but lived a holy life for many years after the battle in 1066. Tiny devils sat on a lady’s long train because she went into church wearing the dress with that train, full of pride and vanity. The ghost of someone’s nephew told them where treasure was hidden.

There are so many stories. Some are anecdotes and enter medieval literature in passing. Some are greater and longer and become whole tales.

One of my favourite stories in the long tale department is the story of Melusine.

I mention this a lot at the moment, because I used it for my most recent novel. It was

first put into a full length tale by Jean d’Arras. Long before Jean d’Arras, famous people explained that they had demon ancestry (Richard I is famous for this claim) and that it explained why they were special. Melusine was the ancestress of the Lusignan family, and was a guivre. In Christian mythology this probably means she was classified as a demon. In folk mythology, however, she was an otherworldly being.

It’s very easy to look at these tales, both long and short and say “This is medieval folklife.” It’s only a small part of it. It’s very easily accessible to us, because it’s written down. We’re more likely to be able to interpret it and to understand it, but it’s only a part of the whole.

We can reconstruct burial practices and popular piety from a combinations of sources and archaeological finds. We can read what the theologians say about how people should be buried and then compare them to actual graves. This gives us an idea about what people thought about death and the afterlife. When bishops were buried, the question of their rings, for example, is important. Whether they were buried with their very expensive rings or with cheap replicas tells us how far those rings were expected to be considered as literal objects to be carried into the afterlife, or whether they were considered symbolic.

archersMost folklife perished with the people who practised it. It wasn’t buried with them: it just disappeared. Most medieval people weren’t literate and they really didn’t care if we (in their distant future) knew whether they put milk out for spirits or buried a shoe or witch bottle in a wall. Witchbottles come after the Middle Ages, but because we really don’t know what peasants in the Middle Ages did everyday, in terms of folk belief, evidence from as late as the nineteenth century has been used to argue “They did this.”

Many modern discussions about medieval folklife muddle things. The wish to understand pushes us beyond what we actually know and so we invent a set of beliefs and practices that belong to a mythical Middle Ages. I’m always amused by this, for I am a historian (and co-writer of The Middle Ages Unlocked), but also a writer of science fiction and fantasy. I keep those two sides of me distinct and keep the timelines for evidence very clear. I want to know what we actually know. If I want to invent a whole new folklore (as I did with Melusine) I write it into fiction.

I wish we knew more. I wish we knew whether the people of England knew about

Melusine or if they believed in guivres. I wish we knew if a London housewife did something odd and furtive to express her superstition as she left her house. I wish we knew if London housewives even had superstitions!

What this means is that we don’t really know tidbits about medieval folklife: we know tidbits about the folklife of educated people in the Middle Ages and just a few stray pieces of information about everyone else. It’s a fabulously rich treasure… and there is so much still to know.


Gillian Dr Gillian Polack is a novelist, editor and medieval historian as well as a lecturer. She has been published in both the academic world and the world of historical fiction. Her most recent novels include Langue[dot]doc 1305 and The Time of the Ghosts (both Satalyte publishing). Find her webpage at and her tweets under @GillianPolack.


Dr Katrin Kania is a freelance textile archaeologist and teacher as well as a publishedKatrin academic who writes in both German and English. She specialises in reconstructing historical garments and offering tools, materials and instructions for historical textile techniques. Find her website at and her blog at She also tweets under @katrinkania.




Middle Ages Unlocked front coverTo our modern minds, the Middle Ages seem to mix the well-known and familiar with wildly alien concepts and circumstances. The Middle Ages Unlocked provides an invaluable introduction to this complex and dynamic period in England. Exploring a wide range of topics from law, religion and education to landscape, art and magic, between the eleventh and early fourteenth centuries, the structures, institutions and circumstances that formed the basis for daily life and society are revealed.



Drawing on their expertise in history and archaeology, Dr Gillian Polack and Dr Katrin Kania look at the tangible aspects of daily life – ranging from the raw materials used for crafts, clothing and jewellery to housing and food – in order to bring the Middle Ages to life. The Middle Ages Unlocked dispels modern assumptions about this period to uncover the complex tapestry of medieval England and the people who lived there.


The Middle Ages Unlocked, link


The battle of Hastings

william-the-cOn October 14th, 949 years ago, Duke William of Normandy accompanied by a Norman-French army met the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson just outside Hastings and on that Saturday morning the battle commenced.

Duke William, also known as William the Bastard, had landed at Penvensey on September 28th with a force that contemporary sources claims consisted of over 700 ships, a number which is most likely exaggerated. The invasion was a result of the succession crisis that had been raging in England since the passing of Edward the Confessor in January that same year. The accession to the throne by Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and the richest and most powerful man in England, had been contested by Duke William – who claimed king Edward himself had promised him the throne – and the Norwegian king Harald III who claimed that there had existed an agreement between his predecessor Magnus and the earlier English king Harthacanute that if either one died without an heir the other would inherit both England and Norway.

As far as Harald – also known as Harald Hardrada – was concerned, England belonged to him. This prompted Harald as well to launch an invasion force which reached the north of England, where they were strengthened by the forces of Tostig Godwinson, exiled brother of Harold and supporter of the Norwegian bid for the throne.

They met Harold at the battle of Stamford Bridge in East Riding of Yorkshire in a battle that often is considered to mark the shift from the Viking age to the early Middle Ages. Like most battles, it was bloody and horrific, and left most of the Norwegian army wiped out. This however also meant that when Harold´s army met that of William at Hastings, they were already quite worn down.

The contemporary sources is contradictory, and the only thing that is known as a fact is that the battle started at 9 am on a Saturday morning and lasted until dusk 11 kilometres north of Hastings, at the location of the modern day town of Battle, but already in the Domesday Book 21 years later, in 1087, it was referred to as the Battle of Hastings.

As we all know, the victory of the day was Norman. The outcome has a lot to do with not least the fact that Harold´s army had only days before fought off the Norwegian invaders, along with the fact that Duke William was a more experienced military commander.

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 51 (partielle) : la bataille d'Hastings, chevaliers et archers normands.

Tapisserie de Bayeux – Scène 51 (partielle) : la bataille d’Hastings, chevaliers et archers normands.

The Norman dead was buried in graves, while the English soldiers was left lying where they fell, with no one really knowing what happened to the remains of Harold Godwinson. One account states that William himself threw the body of the former king in the sea, while there also started to circulate legends that Harold did not in fact die at all, but withdrew the Chester to live out the remainder of his days as a hermit.

Duke William, from this day known as William the Conqueror rather than William the Bastard, had of course expected the surviving English soldiers, and in time the rest of the country, to acknowledge him as the new king. It didn´t quite work out that way, and instead Edgar the Ætheling was proclaimed king.

After a number of clashes between Norman and Anglo-Saxon forces during the fall, William was finally crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey on December 25th 1066.


William the Conqueror – David Douglas

Death of Anglo-Saxon England – Nick Higham

The Norman Conquest – Hugh Thomas

Isabella of Angoulême

Isabella of Angoulême was crowned Queen  consort of King John, at which time she 800px-IsabelledAngoulemewas only 12 years old on this day, October 8 1200.

She was the daughter of Aymer, the last Count of Angoulême of the House of Taillefer. After having been Queen of England for two years Isabella became Countess of Angoulême in her own right as her father died.

Isabella is said to have been a great beauty, but allegedly had a temper which was comparable to that of her husband, causing the marriage to deteriorate over time (even if the marriage had been a political coup for John, there are suggestions that he was infatuated with her at least for a time).

In relation to children, Isabella was fortunate compared to many other women of the period in the was that she got to see them all reach adulthood, and there was quite a few, in her marriage to John, five children were born, the oldest becoming Henry III at the time of John´s death.

After becoming the Queen dowager, she married Hugh X of Lusignan, the son of her former fiancée to who she had been betrothed when she´d been married to John and had another nine children. The plan had been to marry her eldest daughter to Hugh, but when he saw the beauty of his future mother-in-law, things took quite another turn.

Through this marriage she angered the King´s Council as she had not asked for their consent, and chances are, as they could make the decision, is that they may not have allowed her to remarry at all. As a punishment, they confiscated all her dower lands, with the result that she threatened to keep Princess Joan, promised in marriage to the Scottish king, in France. This escalated the conflict to the point where the council started sending letters to the Pope in the name of the young king, demanding that Isabella was excommunicated. The two parties managed however to reach an agreement.

After not being shown sufficient respect as Queen Dowager of England by the French Queen Blanche, for whom she had nothing but hate going back to 1216 when Blanche had encouraged an invasion of England in support of the Barons, she set plans in motion to create an English confederacy in France, something that came to nothing. After her second husband had made peace with the French king, Isabella´s resentment continued to simmer, and in 1244 she was accused of having bribed to royal cooks to poison the king.

Rather than accepting the consequences, she fled to Fontevraud Abbey where she died two years later, in 1246, 30 years after her first husband.



King John and the road to Magna Carta – Stephen Church

The Magnificent Century – Thomas B. Costain

King John – Treachery, Tyranny and the road to Magna Carta – Marc Morris


Birthday of Richard III

On this day in 1452 Richard III was born at Fotheringhay Castle in Richard_III_earliest_surviving_portraitNorthamptonshire.

It is safe to say that no other medieval king has stirred such emotions over the centuries as Richard, first known as the black king who killed his nephews and over the last few years, the tide has turned drastically in Richard´s favour.

The truth of who the man was can most likely be found somewhere between the “black” Richard and the “white” Richard. The fact is, however, that he all through his brother´s, Edward IV, reign was a trusted and loyal Lord of the North and known as an excellent soldier.

The events about which opinions will most likely differ forever took place after Edward´s death:  the arrests of the lords Rivers and Grey at Stoney Stratford and their subsequent executions, the confinement of young king Edward V and his brother Richard at the Tower, the alleged pre-contract and the following Titulus Regius which made all children of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville illegitimate, the very dubious execution of lord Hastings and finally the disappearance of the princes from the Tower.

These are the things we know happened, even if we may never fully find out the answers to why and how. What kind of king Richard would have made in the long run is almost impossible to say as he only held the throne for two years before being killed at the Battle of Bosworth where he met Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII in 1485.

As we all know, the remains of Richard was found under a carpark in Leicester in September 2012, on the site where the Grey Friars church once stood. He was put to his final rest in Leicester Cathedral earlier this year.

Today we wish him a happy birthday!