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On Tour with the Normans: Four Unmissable Sites in Sicily

Having finally submitted my thesis on Norman ethnic identity, I decided to celebrate by taking a holiday. And what better place for a young Norman historian to visit than Sicily?! It’s somewhere that combines exciting historical sites with the sun and warmth that seemed to bypass Devon this summer… Plus, as a newly-trained Norman expert, I was excited to follow in their footsteps and see some of the famous locations that I had read so much about. I confess that my itinerary (and thus this blog) was heavily biased towards Siculo-Norman history, though some of these sites may also whet the appetites of scholars interested in the Romans, Byzantines, Muslims and Swabians. In the interests of space, however, I will keep to what I consider the top four sites in Sicily for Norman historians and enthusiasts.

1. Palermo

Mosaic 1
Mosaic of Roger II being crowned by Christ in the Martorana

My first choice is the capital city Palermo, partly for its sites, but also for its archives. I spent a morning in the Biblioteca centrale della Regione siciliana looking at one of the few surviving manuscripts containing Geoffrey Malaterra’s history of the Normans. Admittedly, this qualified more as work than holiday – but it was too good a chance to miss. The fragmentary manuscript, containing only the first book of the text, is notably small, measuring approximately 7 inches tall and 5 inches across, and I was thankful to be lent a magnifying glass, an essential piece of kit I had foolishly forgotten. When the library closed at one o’clock, I was forced both to relinquish the manuscript and to see what else Palermo had to offer. One of the main sites is Palermo Cathedral, which houses the tombs of various kings and emperors, including the second Norman ruler, King Roger II. A short walk away one can find the Martorana, a co-cathedral dedicated to Saint Mary, founded and built by George of Antioch, who was an advisor to Roger II in the 1140s. The Martorana contains some of the most impressive Greek-style mosaics of the period, perhaps the most famous of which is a portrait of Roger II being crowned by Christ. However, these mosaics are rivalled by those in the Palazzo dei Normanni, the seat of power of the Norman kings and home of one of the oldest European parliaments. The Palatine Chapel and ‘Roger Hall’ of the palace boast mosaics from the 1130s, 1140s, and later, depicting biblical and secular hunting scenes, and are just as breathtaking. Both sites clearly reflect the multicultural society in Sicily during the years of Norman rule.

Mosaic 2
The mosaics in the Palatine Chapel in the Palazzo dei Normanni

2. Caccamo

Caccamo
Caccamo Castle

To the east of Palermo one can find the castle of Caccamo, a spectacular example of a Norman fortification, which was built by Matthew Bonnellus in the twelfth century. Although originally a Norman site, it has been extended over the centuries and I was particularly struck by some of its later early modern features, particularly a devious sixteenth-century addition to a private chapel. Unwanted guests praying in the chapel could fall victim to a secret trapdoor leading to a pit 35 metres deep. As if this were not enough, at the bottom upright swords were supposed to finish the victim off! This is something that might appeal to those family members or friends less enthralled by the Normans, especially those who enjoy the gory thrills of Game of Thrones.

3. Enna

Enna
The Norman Keep of the Castello di Lombardia in Enna

The ancient city of Enna rises 931 metres above sea level. Known as Castrogiovanni during the medieval period, it was renamed around 1927 on the orders of Mussolini to reflect its ancient name. My main point of interest here was the Castello di Lombardia, a fortification situated at the east of the city. Once an important Byzantine stronghold, its foundations are the oldest elements of the castle, some of which were repurposed for the thirteenth-century walls constructed under the Holy Roman Emperor and king of Sicily, Frederick II. The fortification was no doubt daunting even in the Byzantine period and Muslim forces are believed to have resorted to crawling through the sewers to gain entry when they captured the castle in 859. Centuries later Enna played a decisive role in the Norman conquest of Sicily under Roger and Robert Hauteville. According to Geoffrey Malaterra the Normans defeated a vastly superior Muslim force on the banks of the river Dittaino in the summer of 1061, forcing them to retreat to Enna. It was, however, to take over twenty years, the building of another fortification nearby at Calascibetta, and a cunning ambush before Roger wrested Enna from Muslim control, a testament, no doubt, to the strength of the castle. Nevertheless, the Normans left their mark in the form of the keep, which still dominates the landscape today.

4. Erice

My final recommendation is the the town of Erice, which overlooks the city of Trapani at 750 metres above sea level. Here I made straight for the Castle of Venus, a Norman fortification built upon an ancient temple to a goddess of fertility, which was later appropriated for Venus by the Romans. The surviving ruins date back to the twelfth century but archaeological excavations in the 1930s discovered traces of the ancient building – legend even attributes the oldest section of the wall to the mythical Daedalus. Roger Hauteville is also credited with founding the nearby Chiesa di San Giuliano in 1076, one of the first churches built in Erice, though the surviving building dates from the seventeenth-century.

Erice
The Castle of Venus in Erice

Sicily boasts a great wealth of incredible sites and monuments to history but during my visit I was struck by a notable disparity between certain sites. While the most popular destinations thrive on the tourism industry others are neglected, with crumbling walls and severely vandalised noticeboards pointing to a woeful lack of funds. Such issues have not gone unnoticed in Italy. Only this summer the Italian government announced their plans to give away over 100 historical sites, including medieval castles and monasteries, to those who could demonstrate a solid plan to renovate the properties into tourist hotspots. Unfortunately, none of these properties are located in Sicily. What may become of the less popular sites here is uncertain; while the cheap, or even free, admission to many of them is a welcome boon to financially concerned researchers and holidaymakers, it speaks volumes for their future. These fascinating sites are a testament to the remarkable impact of the Normans and other peoples on Sicilian history and culture – one can only hope that they will remain open (and intact) for a long time to come.

Tom Chadwick, PhD Student in History

Building your CV, One Castle at a Time

When I started my PhD in medieval archaeology the reason was simple. There was a very clear gap in the understanding of medieval castles I wanted to address and formalising it as a piece of research seemed the next sensible step. So here I am researching why castles were demolished in the Middle Ages and what that looks like archaeologically.  (Hopefully!) the results will carry weight and might change how people think about the subject.

As I’m approaching the end of my project, I’m thinking about what I might do afterwards. I would love to stay involved in academia but don’t know if there’s space. It’s a competitive field and, while I love the research and the teaching, it may prove very difficult to land that permanent academic post. What I do know is that I’d like to stay involved with discussions around castles and medieval archaeology – and becoming a university lecturer isn’t the only way to do that.

CSTVoluntary work is a one way to keep a foothold in the field. Two years ago I joined the board of the Castle Studies Trust. We’re a small charity with no staff and a budget of around £15,000. We fund research projects into castles with a limit of £7,500 per grant. The Trust doesn’t get directly involved in the fieldwork or interpretation, but we do get to choose which projects we support, which, in turn, helps to shape current research in this area. What happens is that groups interested in carrying out research on particular castles apply to the Trust with projects that have been fully planned and costed. We then send these applications to a panel of castle experts who assess them and provide recommendations for funding. Finally, the board of trustees decide which projects to support, based on these recommendations. For those interested in applying for a grant, the application process opens in September and closes on 15 December. The Trust will confirm awards in February.

Castell Dinas Bran
Castell Dinas Bran in Wales, the site of one of the Castle Studies Trust’s most recent projects..

Regardless of what happens to me next, I have found volunteering with a heritage organisation a very useful experience. I’ve talked to archaeologists working in the field about their projects and have been able to pick their brains about my own research questions. I’ve learnt much more about castles and how they worked, and have broadened my perspective on the topic. My work at the Trust also shows that I am passionate about heritage: I’ve made the effort to do outreach, I’ve gained practical knowledge of the challenges of preservation, and I’ve been forced to consider the public benefit of projects submitted to the Trust. I’ve also gained a much stronger understanding of the funding process. By assessing applications and giving critical feedback, I’ve learnt what makes a strong application – and will be able to apply these lessons when I go on to make grant applications of my own. It’s also been a useful opportunity to build my professional network.

Importantly, it’s also given me transferable skills which will be useful outside the context of medieval archaeology. Becoming a trustee, even of a small charity, requires you to be an active volunteer and to take on some major responsibilities. You have legal duties, such as scrutinising accounts and doing your bit to ensure funds are spent in line with your organisation’s objectives. You also gain experience of governance, i.e. being in charge of an organisation. Finally, with the Castle Studies Trust I’m also specialising in communicating the results of our work, so I have demonstrable experience of communicating with different audiences and developing skills I wouldn’t get the opportunity to do so otherwise.

Being a trustee has been a really rewarding experience and it’s something that I would encourage others to do, particularly early in your career. Although, according to Young Charity Trustees, the average age of trustees in England and Wales is 57, don’t be put off – many charities are looking for younger members to join their boards. They want the new experiences and points of view that you can bring to the organisation. If you’re interested and want further information, the Young Charity Trustees group has some useful materials here.

Volunteering with heritage groups is a great way to contribute to an area you care about and to gain experience for your CV. I’ve found that in small organisation, such as the Castle Studies Trust, one person can make a colossal difference. But most important of all, I’ve found volunteering to be fun. So if there’s an organisation whose values match your own, offer to help them out. And if you want to know more about the Castle Studies Trust in particular, check out the video below.

Richard Nevell, PhD student in Archaeology

Anarchy in the UK?

I’m delighted to see the fruits of a recent Exeter-based archaeological research project on the conflict landscapes of the 12th century published in book form. The co-written title Anarchy: War and Status in 12th-century Landscapes of Conflict, a volume of synthesis which is the principal output from the project, has just been published by Liverpool University Press, and a more specialist volume on archaeological surveys carried out during the fieldwork phase of the work is available through Archaeopress.

LUP book coverArchaeopress book cover

On the one hand it is a time to breathe a sigh of relief to see volumes that have seen such an investment of energy finally ‘out’. But the moment when fresh copies of your own books arrive on your desk it is also a time when a researcher will also reflect on the reasons for carrying out the work in the first place, ponder areas where the work headed off in directions that you didn’t quite anticipate, and think about future plans…

In this case, the research root of the work was an AHRC-funded project on the historic town and castle of Wallingford, which I had the pleasure to run with colleagues at the Universities of Leicester and Oxford, in partnership with local groups. While the main focus of this project was the evolution of a townscape from the late Saxon through to the post-medieval period, as the work developed we became increasingly aware of the place’s pivotal role in the civil war of King Stephen’s reign, in the 1130s, 40s and 50s. The place was the Angevins’ flagship castle for much of this infamously bitter conflict and resisted three protracted sieges, making it the most besieged place in England at the time. But relating the colourful accounts of these complex actions by chroniclers, involving numerous sieges, counter-sieges, raids and armed clashes, to the actual landscape of the town and its surroundings proved immensely challenging — no more so than in trying to locate the many ‘lost’ siege castles built around the town between 1139 and 1153.

image description
Reconstruction of Wallingford under siege in the mid-12th century. The site in the foreground is a reconstruction of one of King Stephen’s siege castles. Artwork by Richard Parker.

My deepening curiosity about what archaeology could (and could not) tell us about this bleak but fascinating period and its ‘real’ impact on society and landscape led me to develop a project that would aim to marshal and interrogate the full range of available archaeological evidence, and conduct fresh fieldwork to explore on a range of sites. In terms of historical work on Stephen’s, there of course exists a vast historiography, with a raft of key volumes written and edited by towering figures of medieval history. In contrast, precious little had been written of the period’s archaeology.

Blogger surveying
The blogger helping conduct a geophysical survey of a siege castle at Corfe, Dorset.

With funding from the Leverhulme Trust, to whom we are hugely grateful, the two-year project saw a research team working in archives, record offices and of course in the field, where we carried out new surveys of a selection of sites — primarily castles, siege castles and settlements — across England.  A characterising feature of the work was the way we investigated this conflict’s archaeology at a series of different scales — from analyses of individual artefacts (such as weaponry and dress accessories) to the physical remains of fortifications and their landscape settings, and through plotting datasets at regional and national scales, including the coinage, which tells us so much about shifting patterns of royal control.

 

Lincoln
Part of a frieze on the west front of Lincoln cathedral dating to the 1140s. The scene on the right represents the ‘Harrowing of Hell’, with Christ releasing souls from the mouth of hell while standing on the devil. An appropriate image for the mid-12th-century Zeitgeist?

AnarchyUK [Converted]
Map of devastated zones in the conflict of Stephen’s reign, based on a database of twelfth-century chronicles.
In terms of the big question for historians — whether we genuinely see ‘anarchy’ in mid-12th-century England, or whether revisionist views that downplay the levels of chaos and violence are vindicated — what did our work show? Anarchy in the UK or business as usual? Is it playing safe to say that the material evidence of archaeology shows a bit of both? On the one hand, everyday material culture, such as pottery for example, shows precious little evidence for any Anarchy-period ‘event horizon’ in the archaeological record, and there are signs that in certain spheres, such as sculpture for example, this was a period of experimentation and investment in the arts. On the other hand, our mapping of conflict events and, for example, coin hoards (which can be argued to provide an index of insecurity) show that in those areas of the country where it was focused, the conflict hit the landscape hard. The fortification of churches and even cathedrals (Hereford’s had catapults positioned on its tower!) was just one indication of how the rules of war were being stretched. The focus of conflict in the Thames Valley and Wessex also shows that this was not a struggle over peripheral or separatist regions, but for the very heartland of English kingship. But the area of life brought into the sharpest focus by the archaeology is the rise to prominence of local lords and of the seigneurial image —not just through castle-building, but through investment in sculpture within parish churches and through an unprecedented boom in monastic foundation, for example. As local lords made their mark on local landscapes, this was unmistakably a period of image-making as well as war-mongering.

Oliver Creighton is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Exeter