The Irish Hobby Horse

There is a pervasive brightening in the air where the mighty Atlantic pummels the rocks and cliff faces and claws its way onto the secret shingle beaches of Connemara on the west coast of Ireland. Above the littoral a quilt of stony fields conjure up a mystical past. It is easy, in this magical place, to sense the timelessness of nature and our own brief sojourn in the vast sweep of creation. Here is the land of Queen Maeve, Cú Chulainn, Finn McCool, Oisín, the Fianna and the mysterious Tuatha de Danaan. Add to this a vision that time after time will startle the eye and the heart. It is the Connemara pony standing majestic and wild as the Atlantic in the tiny rock-strewn fields. They belong here, inseparable from the landscape like the stone walls, delicate as lace, that surrounds them.

Connemara Pony

Connemara Pony

 

The Connemara Pony has a noble history. It is descended from the, now extinct, Irish Hobby Horse. The Hobby was bred in Ireland from Spanish and Libyan stock.  According to James Lydon : “Hobelars (the name given to lightly armed riders on hobby horses) were highly mobile and excellent in scouting, reconnaissance  and patrols … eminently suitable to terrain in which military operations had to be conducted in Ireland.” In the Scottish Wars at the beginning of the 14th Century, Robert de Bruce and contemporaries like William Wallace deployed Hobelars to great effect against the bigger and more heavily armed knights of King Edward I (Longshanks) of England. The Hobelars could travel up to 60 miles in one day to escape or launch surprise attacks against their enemies.

Edward 1 - Longshanks

Edward I (Longshanks)

Robertthebruce

Robert de Bruce

 

Edward recognised the advantage these hobelars had in the mountains and marshlands of Scotland and he forbade the export of hobby horses from Ireland to Scotland. In 1296 he also requisitioned troops from Ireland and amongst them was 260 Irish Hobelars

We have a first-hand account of what is undoubtedly an Irish Hobby horse in 1399. Jean Creton, a valet-de-chambre to the French king Charles VI joined the English King, Richard II’s expedition to Ireland, via  Waterfoprd, with a large army. Richard wished to chastise Art Mor McMurrough , king of Leinster, for his blatant disregard of Richard’s  rule in Ireland. Art was not intimidated by Richard and he continuously harassed the English army on its way to Dublin. As a result, Richard sent his emissary, the Earl of Glochester, to treaty with Art.  Jean Creton observed that meeting and recorded it in his Histoire du  Roy d’Angleterre Richard 1399. He describes the arrival of Art:  ”He is a fine , large, handsome man, marvellously agile, yet stern of countenance and indomitable mien. He wore a high conical cap covering the knape of the neck and a parti-coloured cloak, long coat and undercoat all of gay yellow, crimson and blue. He rode a very swift horse of great value, valued that of 400 milch cows, having neither saddle nor house, but could rush down a hill faster than a deer or hare. After divers discourse Art told my lord: ‘I am the rightful king in this land, thereby it is unjust to deprive me of what is my land  and country by force of conquest.’”  There is an  illustration of that famous meeting in Jean Creton’s history.  King Art’s  horse is clearly depicted as being lighter than the horses of the English knights and Art is riding without stirrup or saddle which was typical of the Irish horseman at that time.

Art Mac Murrough arriving to parley with the Earl of Glouchester

Art Mac Murrough arriving to parley with the Earl of Glouchester

Jean Creton’s remarks on the speed of Art’s horse bears out what Alexander McKay-Smith states in his book Speed and the Thoroughbred  wherein he explains that the speed of the modern thoroughbred  is inherited in great part from the Irish Hobby and its descendants, the Connemara Pony and the Irish draught Horse. “This is not surprising” he writes “the name of the hobby comes from the Gaelic obann   meaning swift or fast.

So, the next time you see a Connemara remember its unique and noble ancestry.

PS. Henry VIII greatly admired the “Irish Hobby” for its natural, ambling gait and comfortable ride. He began racing his own specially bred Hobbys against horses owned by others of the English nobility. By 1816, Henry’s pastime would lead to the word “hobby” being entered in the dictionary with a new meaning: “a costly pastime indulged in by the idle rich.”

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“He deflowered me in the barn …”

Grazide Rives, a peasant girl from Montaillou lost her virginity to the local priest, Pierre Clergue in the year 1313. We have a detailed account of this from the Inquisition register of Jacques Fournier, bishop of Pamiers in Comte de Foix, southern France. Grazida was interrogated by him, which resulted in a verbatim record of what happened to her. He, later to become Pope Benedict XII, and referred to as a clodhopper by Petrarch, was, fortunately, a meticulous note-taker. Because of this we have one of the very rare insights into the life of the medieval peasant.

Man accosting a woman at the loom: Smithfield Decretals, Southern France, late 13th -- early 14th Century.  British Library, Royal MS 10E

Man accosting a woman at the loom: Smithfield Decretals, Southern France, late 13th — early 14th Century. British Library, Royal MS 10E

Montaillou, in the Pyranees, at that time, had a population of little more than 200. It was a community of mainly peasant farmers, labourers and shepherds. The Comte de Foix was the feudal overlord of the pyranean principality that included Montaillou. In Montaillou the interests of the house of Foix was looked after by a chatelain and a bayle(bailiff). There was little distinction between these minor officials and the peasants and to a large extent Montaillou was left to its own devices as long as it paid its taxes and tithes.

Pierre Clergue, the priest, was the power behind the most dominant family in the village. He was a seducer and incorrigible womaniser with at least a dozen mistresses. It appears not to have been such a great scandal. The villagers, men and women, were well aware of his activities and endured them or, in some cases, welcomed them. Pierre was ruthless in his unquenchable desire for women. If a woman resisted him he would intimidate her by threatening to report her to the inquisition. The inquisition, at that time was trying to stamp out Catharism which was endemic in the region.

The young girl Grazide Rives gave a very frank account of her liason with Pierre Clergue:

“The priest came to my mother’s house while she was out harvesting, and was very pressing: ‘Allow me,’ he said, ‘ to know you carnally. And I said, ‘All right.’

At that time, I was a virgin. I think I was fourteen or fifteen years old. He deflowered me in the barn in which we kept the straw. But it wasn’t rape at all.”

Grazide went on to say that the priest continued to know her carnally, even after he had given her as a wife to an old peasant called Pierre Lizier. Both Grazide’s husband and her mother knew that the priest was having sex with her and both consented to it. The sexual encounters happened mostly during the day in the mother’s house. Grazide’s husband, Pierre, would say, ‘has the priest done it with you?’ and Grazide would answer ‘Yes.’ To which Pierre would say ‘as far as the priest is concerned, all right! But don’t you go having other men.’

Grazide on being questioned about her attitude to her sexual relationship with the priest said : ‘with Pierre Clergue, I liked it. And so it could not displease God. It was not a sin.’ This is an interesting view from a poorly educated girl but it is not an uncommon view. Master Ermengaud’s Breviaire d’Amour and Flamenca express the very same idea: ‘A lady who sleeps with a true lover is purified of all sins … and the joy of love makes the act innocent.’

Couple in bed: Aldobrandino of Siena's le Regime de Corps, Lille, ca. 1285.British Library, MS Sloane 2435 fol. 9v

Couple in bed: Aldobrandino of Siena’s le Regime de Corps, Lille, ca. 1285.
British Library, MS Sloane 2435 fol. 9v

It would certainly appear that there was a considerable degree of sexual tolerance amongst some of our medieval ancestors. As we can see from this story from Montaillou, the Catholic religion and its priest was no deterrent to liberal sexual attitudes. Licentious behaviour of Catholic clergy was widespread in the 14th century. This is one reason why Catharism was widely accepted and it’s parfaits (monks who professed to be Cathars) admired for living true Christian lives of prayer and poverty.

If Nobody Asks Me, I Know What Time Is …

“If nobody asks me, I know what time is, but if I am asked then I am at a loss what to say.”
St  Augustine 354 – 430 AD

Time is the one of the most elusive and mysterious concepts that philosophers and scientists have grappled with throughout the history of mankind. I am not even remotely qualified to expound on this subject and do not intend to do so. However, on the measurement of time as a practical everyday aspect of living, I do have an interest, particularly its measurement in Medieval times.

How did the poor medieval labourer or peasant know when to go to work and when to finish work? An anonymous versifier of the fifteenth century gives us a clue about one way to gage the start of day.

I have a gentle cock,
Croweth me the day
He doth me risen early
My Matins for to say.

In truth, things were not so haphazard as that. Bells from the local monastery were rung to signal the different hours of the day. The monks used sundials, hourglasses, calibrated candles and water clocks to calculate the time.

The latin system of counting the hours of the day was:-

Prime – 6 am
Tierce – 9 am
Sext – 12 noon
Nones – 3 pm

The Church designated other times for prayer:

Matins – Midnight
Lauds – Dawn
Vespers – Evening
Compline – Before Bedtime

The astrolabe was another method of calculating the hours of the day. Chaucer himself wrote a treatise, for his young son, on how to use it to tell time. Interestingly, by Chaucers time (1343 -1400), great mechanical clocks were beginning to be built all over Europe. These clocks were housed in the belfries of Churches and Cathedrals and later bell towers in city squares.

It is hard to say when the first mechanical clock was invented, but in Europe they began to appear by the late 13th Century. The earliest public tower clocks had no dials or clockface; they simply rang a bell on the hour. Some of the more elaborate ones triggered displays of animated automatons. The clockface and a single hour hand followed. Other ingenious clocks gave, not only the time, but all kinds of astronomical information.

Saint Bernardino(1380-1444) preaching in Siena before the Palazzo Publico. Notice the clock on the left hand tower. The painting is by Sano di Pietro (1406-1481)

In 1344 Jacopo Dondi installed an astronomical clock in the facade of the Palazzo de Capitano at Padua.

Clock tower, Palazzo del Capitano, Padova

In England an extraordinary astrological clock was designed by the country’s greatest medieval scientists, Richard of Wallingford (1292-1336). Son of a blacksmith, he was a brilliant mathematician and was obsessed with the practical application of science and mathematics, to the extent that he was rather neglectful of his spiritual role and later his administrative role when he became abbot of St. Albans, the principle abbey in England. It is recorded that he gave precedence to the work on his clock over the repair of the Abbey. When mildly rebuked by King Edward III, he argued that any successor of his could hire workmen to repair the abbey but only he could design and make the clock. The clock was not completed in his lifetime but design details are recorded in his Tractatus Horologii Astronomici (1327). Richard’s was not the first tower clock in England but it was the most advanced in its design.

Richard of Wallingford and Abbot of St Albans pointing to a clock. Notice marks on his face showing, the results of leprosy.


Time has always been considered a precious commodity. In the middle ages one of the greatest preachers and orators was Bertold of Regensburg (1220-1272) . Time, he said was one of the talents referred to in St. Mathews parable of the talents. It was man’s duty not to squander it.

This idea of the preciousness of time is well articulated in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales when the Host address the Company before the Lawyers Tale:

“Let’s lose as little time now as we may.
My lords, it’s time that wastes both night and day,
That robs us while we sleep without defense,
And while awake, through our own negligence.
It’s like a stream returning not again,
Descending from the mountain to the plain.
Well Seneca, like others of his measure,
Bewails the loss of time more than of treasure:
‘Of chattels there may be recovery,
But we are ruined by loss of time,’ said he.”

I just wonder if Bertold of Regensburg or Chaucer would approve of the time I spend ‘on the Internet.’ ? Probably not.  

Medieval Schools under Charlemagne

In the eight and early ninth century, Charlemagne had an enormous impact on education and learning. He reformed his own palace school  for  his children and other youths. Before his reign, the school taught young nobles court manners, how to fight and wage war. He introduced the liberal arts into the curriculum.
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Charlemagne 742 – 814

Charlemagne invited Paul the Deacon (an Italian Benedictine) to become head of the Palace School. He also induced Paulinus of Aquileia (theologian), and Peter of Pisa (Grammarian) to teach there. He, himself, attended lectures of Peter of Pisa.

It was after the arrival of Acuin of York to the court of Charlemagne that real educational reform began. Alcuin became Charlemagne’s advisor, teacher and minister of education.

In 787 Charlemagne issued his famous capitulary informing the Bishops and Abbots of the empire that he wished them to pursue the education of the monks and clergy with more zeal and dedication to scholarship, noting that letters he had received from various monasteries were crude and potentially a source of error in religious matters. He also made it clear that the Bishops and Abbots were to set up local schools for boys from the surrounding districts where they could be taught, at least the rudiments of general education and Christian doctrine. These schools were free.

After Charlemagne died in 814 the Empire began to slowly disintegrate and without his influence the interest in education began to diminish. Some monastic and cathedral schools remained and by the 12th century emerged as famous universities like Bologna, Paris, Montpellier and Oxford.

Money in the Middle Ages (l. s. d.)

Charlemagne (747 – 814), King of the Franks and later Holy Roman Emperor, set up a new monetary system based on a system introduced by his father, Pippin. Pippin’s system, in turn, was based on the old Greek and Roman Libra, Solidus and Denarius (l. s. d.) This old system was based on gold which became scarce after the conclusion of peace with Byzantium and the resulting loss of trade routes to Africa and the East.

Denier from the era of Charlemagne

Charlemagne’s new standard was based on silver. The livre (pound) which was worth 20 sous (like the solidus, and later the shilling) or 240 deniers (like the denarius, and eventually the penny). Initially the only coin minted was the denier; the livre and sou were simply counting units. This system was introduced into Charlemagne’s empire, which was most of Europe. England also adopted it.

Charlemagne’s Empire

After Charlemagne’s death, his empire and his reforms in the monetary system, accounting and education began to disintegrate. Continental coinage became totally degraded and the high quality English coinage became the chosen standard up to the 12th century

Medieval Spectacles

At the launch of my novel The Reluctant King an actor friend of mine, Justin Aylmer, who was dressed in medieval costume and reading extracts from the book, apologised that he had to wear glasses because they would be somewhat incongruous with his costume.  I was happy to inform him that, contrary to what many people might think, glasses or spectacles are not a modern invention.

The concept of magnification by using a lens is mentioned as far back as the 1st Century A.D.  when Seneca the Younger mentions the magnifying effects of using a  globe to read small text.

Much later, in his seven volume Book of Optics, Alhazan, born in Basra, Iraq in 965, investigated the magnifying power of the lens. Al Hazan was one of the great Arab experimentalists and a pioneer of optical science.

By the 13th Century spectacles were being manufactured in Italy. The invention of spectacles would have been an incredibly significant technological advance because it enabled scholars to continue their studies undimished by the natural deterioration of eyesight with age. Petrach, who was born in 1304 wrote: “I had … a vision that for many years was sharp. (But it failed me unexpectedly when I was over sixty, so that I was forced reluctantly to the use of spectacles.)”

We also have concrete evidence of these early spectacles in medieval paintings. It is interesting to note in these paintings that it is mainly monks and religious who wear spectacles. This is not surprising since reading and writing were almost exclusively within the competence of the church.

Panel from the Wildunger Altarpiece by Konrad von Soest (1365 – 1425) with Glasses Apostle.

The Alaunt: Hunting Dog of the Middle Ages

Alaunts at the kill of a wild boar from The Grimami Breviary 1490

In the Middle Ages the warrior-class when not engaged in war spent a great deal of their time and resources hunting.

The hunting dog used to seize a running beast was the alaunt. The alaunt, originally a herd and war dog of the Alani warriors of central Asia was cross bred with sight and and scent hounds in the west to produce the alaunt gentil and the bulldog alaunt. The alaunt gentil resembled a greyhound but were heavier and their their heads were broader and shorter.  In his Book of the Hunt, Alfonso of Castile (1311 – 1350) describes the alaunt’s head as being broader than that of the greyhound and more like the conger eel’s head. The bulldog alaunt was heavier again and and looked more like a mastif.

The other important aspect of the alaunt was its temperament. The quarry pursued by hunters of the middle ages and later was large and dangerous. Wild boar, bear and wolf were particularly fierce and the alaunt needed to be fearless and aggressive when it came to the kill. Some of the modern day bull terrier breeds look like smaller versions of the bulldog alaunt and they certainly manifest a fearlessness that is unfortunately exploited by some unscrupulous people.

In the Middle Ages the dog handlers, were very important members of the aristocratic household staff. They were called fewterers.

We can get a good idea of what the alaunt looked like from paintings of the period. There are also modern versions of the alaunt being bred.

 

Modern Alaunt Gentil

American Alaunt Mastif

Demetrius Tancredi

 

Demetrius Tancredi, Chancellor of Dredgemarsh

 

“Tancredi relished the political arena, and if, for some reason, Dredgemarsh were free of political intrigue, he, Demetrius Tancredi, would create it. It was the game itself, and not the goal that completely dominated his every waking hour. Now, late into the night, like a grand chess master, he explored the possibilities that that momentous day had brought. He wrote out his priorities for the following day and then turned to his supper of oaten cake and vernage. He took his time eating at a small stone table set in a bay window, which looked out over the northern side of the castle and its surrounding territory. The bright moon etched a stark checkerboard of black shadows across the silver domes, spires and rooftops.”  The Reluctant King Chapter 12

‘Do you think I will allow your daughter to destroy everything I have worked for?’  Chancellor Tancredi was shouting, as he stormed into Arnulf Beaufort’s dining hall
.
‘What? What are you talking about?’  Beaufort, seated alone at his dining table, spluttered, as he tried to swallow a mouthful of doucette, a favourite late afternoon indulgence of his.

‘Have you any control over her or is this a plot against me?’  Tancredi was white-faced.

‘Plot? There is no plot. We have set a day, St. Sigbert’s Day! For the marriage. It is all arranged.’

‘Arranged, ha! Have you any idea of what your daughter is up to?’”
The Reluctant King Chapter 21

At that moment in time, he was once again the wretched child who was forced into slavery in a fuller’s yard after his father and mother died of plague. He felt again the awful shame of his ragged clothes, impregnated with the wash of piss and fuller’s earth. He could hear the jeering of other children; ‘piss pot, piss pot, greasy Tancredi’s a piss pot.’ The muscular spasm under his left eye pulled his face into a grotesque rictus of hatred and he sank to his knees in the foul water.”
The Reluctant King Chapter 21

‘My hour has come, Dredgemarsh’s hour has come,’ he whispered into the night air. ‘He must die, for all our sakes. There is no other way.’ He mounted and turned towards the castle. Over and over he rehearsed the details of the plan he had been incubating all that day. When it all fell into place, he gave a little gasp of delight at his own cleverness. As he approached the portal gate he felt he could sense the very walls, stones and paths of Dredgemarsh welcoming him, their new master.”
The Reluctant King Chapter 22

 

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Francis Burstboil, Scullery Boy

Francis Burstboil - Dredgemarsh Scullery Boy

“Verm Bludvile had tied him to one of the decaying pillars in the storeroom of the Hall of Echoes. The empty crates that once held an abundance of candles were strewn around the floor. Bludvile sat on one of them, directly in front of Burstboil, observing him with unnerving curiosity. The petrified boy could not meet that terrible gaze, and tried to look elsewhere. His stomach churned. There   beside the crate, on which this monster sat, were the grisly remains of Sling, tail and head. The boy spewed. The contents of his bowels turned to liquid and flowed down his trembling shanks.”

The Reluctant King
Chapter 6

“It is impossible to fathom the human spirit; its amazing force, and equally, its amazing weakness and susceptibility. Verm Bludvile epitomised the force, the fanatical focusing of every facet of being on a single purpose, while the bedraggled and terrified scullery boy was, as it were, a blank page, upon which Verm could imprint anything he wished. It was a strange and fortuitous accident for Verm that this pathetic and weak-minded boy should fall into his clutches. It was stranger still that Verm, only recently come to self-awareness himself, could exert so much influence on another  human, even of the calibre of  Burstboil. Yet, that is what happened. Perhaps it was that the boy never got over the fright of that first terrifying encounter. Suffice it to say Verm had found himself a willing disciple and a slave.”

The Reluctant King
Chapter 7

‘Oh Mistress Crumble I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ he began to mumble. He wished himself back in the Dredgemarsh kitchens, scrubbing floors and being ordered about by everyone save the kitchen cat. He longed for the reassurance of a stinging slap across the ear from Bella Crumble. The image was bliss and his mind focused and froze on that image. Thus he remained, only dimly conscious of the shadows that pressed and converged in an ever-tightening circle around him. The puny kitchen boy was suspended in a crucible of terror that threatened to shatter his mind like glass. His only means of defence was physical and mental paralysis. Somewhere deep within him, these primitive mechanisms were triggered.

The Reluctant King
Chapter 15

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The Faddan More Psalter

Faddan More Psalter 8th Century from a bog in Tipperary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If we don’t have our history, we are orphans. I don’t know where I heard that phrase, or something similar, but it struck me as being a very profound statement.

The idea came to the fore this evening as I watched a replay of a documentary on the Fadden More Psalter. This psalter was discovered in a bog in Tipperrary, Ireland.  It dates from the 8th century and is an incredibly important find.

It has always been recognised  that Irish Christianity in the Middle Ages was different from the European or Roman Christianity: it was based on a monastic model as opposed to the hierarchical Roman model of Pope, Bishops, Priests and lay people.

This monastic model was, in fact, more akin to the Coptic Church and the Desert Father’s who sought isolation in the deserts in order to get closer to God. The similarity to the Coptic Church was not based on any hard evidence or concrete connection.

However, after painstaking restoration work, a remarkable discovery was made which points to a very tangible connection to the Coptic Church. On the inside of the leather cover of the psalter, the restorer found a pattern, the weave of which reminded him of ancient papyrus. Papyrus was not a material that had ever been cited in ancient Irish studies, nor was it a material that one would ever expect to see in Irish latitudes. After tests, however, the page on the inner part of the leather cover was confirmed as being papyrus: a material widely used in early Coptic manuscripts.

The connection between the Irish and Coptic Christianity is now even more intriguing. How did the papyrus get to Ireland?  How and why did it end up in a bog.

These are the fascinating questions raised by the discovery of the Fadden More Psalter. With regards to how it ended up in a bog, one theory is that it was hidden in the bog by a monk to save it from being destroyed by Viking raiders and that the monk himself did not survive to reclaim it. This seems like a plausible explanation.

Whatever the real story is, science and future treasures from the bogs will help us piece together the remarkable lives of our ancestors and their great love for the written word which has always been a notable feature of the Irish culture, right up to the present day.

The video about the Fadden More Psalter is at http://xrl.us/bmyn2p