$250,000 in Gold Coins Discovered Off Florida Coast

Oh if only I could make a find like that in my back garden…

NewsFeed

You know that incredible feeling when you find $10 in the pocket of an old jacket? Well, this is kind of like that, but also, kind of different. This past weekend, a team of shipwreck explorers discovered 48 gold coins reportedly worth up to $250,000, CNN reports.

Brent Brisben, who owns the shipwreck salvage company 1715 Fleet – Queens Jewels, LLC, led his crew of three on an expedition off the Florida coast to explore a 300-year-old wreck site. And, in the most literal sense, he struck gold. The trove of coins the crew found, called escudos, are part of the treasure left behind after 11 Spanish galleons sank on July 31, 1715, after a hurricane. According to CNN, they’re still in decent condition, with some markings still legible. The oldest dates to 1697, and the youngest dates to 1714.

(MORE: Nevada Recluse Hoarded $7 Million Worth of…

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Watchers on the wall

GoTwall

In George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, which gave rise to the series Game of Thrones, a vast wall of ice stretches across the North, 700ft high and hundreds of miles long. It staves off attacks by raiders and magical creatures alike. It’s inspired by Hadrian’s Wall, which the Romans built across what is now Scotland in order to stave off attacks by the Irish (Scotii) and Picts.

The wall was garrisoned by up to 10,000 men at a series of forts and towers, a considerable fighting force of ostensibly trained warriors compared to the more undisciplined raiders from the north.

There are actually two walls, the later Antonine at the Firth of Forth and the better-preserved, older, more southerly Hadrian’s, though much of it has been lost to quarrying and local construction. Having had a top height of about 10ft, It’s somewhat more modest than the wall in Westeros.

Hadrian's_wall_at_Greenhead_Lough

Gildas, the sixth-century British month, wrote about them, but gets their order of building wrong. The Antonine, he says, was built first, and he speaks despairingly of it. The Romans, after a plea from the helpless colony, had sent a legion which proceeded to smash Scottish/Pictish resistance and drive them back.

The British were told to construct across the island a wall linking the two seas; properly manned, this would scare away the enemy and act as a protection for the people. But it was the work of a leaderless and irrational mob, and made of turf rather than stone; so it did no good. (Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae 15)

In fact both the Antonine and southern wall were built from a combination of stone and turf; much like the Great Wall of China, it was built from whatever was closest to hand. Studies of Gildas sometimes look upon him unkindly for his portrayal of the walls, based on the paucity of his sources. However, this overlooks that he is making a very deliberate point – that the Britons have been habitually lazy (they “chose to relax in laziness and stupor”) and have preferred to look to abroad for aid rather than help themselves. We must bear in mind that Gildas was not writing history as we understand it; rather, he was using the historical section of his tract as a way of shaming the current day into moral and social reform.

The Romans, Gildas writes, having laid the barbarians low for a second time and, after offering advice on self-defence and urging the Britons to repel the invaders themselves in future, “built a wall quite different from the first. This one ran straight from sea to sea, linking towns that happened to have been sited there out of fear of the enemy” (DEB 18.2). The implication is that it was of stone, or at least better quality materials; there is a reference to a series of towers.

Sometimes I wonder what it was like to be a soldier on the wall in the middle of winter, listening to the howls of the wind and wondering if, somewhere out there in the darkness, one of the native tribes was preparing to attack. It’s difficult to imagine the strangeness and fear that would bring, fear of the unknown territory as much as unknown attack. The dark is foreboding enough without having to worry about a spear in the guts or an arrow through the brain. The garrisons might have had troops from abroad, but eventually they were mostly locals.

A force was stationed on the high towers to oppose them [Irish and Picts], but it was too lazy to fight, and too unwieldy to flee; the men were foolish and frightened, and they sat about day and night, rotting in their folly. Meanwhile there was no respite from the barbed spears flung by their naked opponents, which tore our wretched countrymen from the walls and dashed them to the ground … I need say no more. Our citizens abandoned the towns and the high wall [and were scattered] (Gildas, DEB 19.2-3)

For fans of A Song of Ice and Fire, this might seem vaguely familiar, with the decaying defences paralleling how the forts along the Wall had fallen into ruin and the defenders, the Night’s Watch, had been whittled down to a fraction of what they had been thousands of years previously.

 

While Martin is using it for dramatic effect, heralding the danger of a supernatural invasion from the far north, Gildas is again using it for political reasons. For instance, he makes it seem like the walls were built and abandoned in quick succession. The Antonine wall (built c.AD140) was indeed abandoned within 20 years, and briefly restored by Emperor Severus (c.AD200). However, Hadrian’s, built from about AD120 was garrisoned up until the early part of the fifth century, when the Romans withdrew from Britain. Gildas is collapsing history to make a moral point.

This is the kind of thing I meant when I wrote a few days ago about interrogating documents. Gildas has an agenda, so there’s no point just dismissing or accepting what he says on face value – you need to look more closely at the text to see what he really means.

I’m sure he would have considered himself a watcher on the wall, trying desperately to alert his contemporaries of dangers (temporal and spiritual) he saw coming their way, railing against the follies of the modern world and despairing that nobody is acting upon his warnings. I suspect he would have made an interesting blogger. Mad, though.

Bede studies

Team Bede - assemble!

Working on a PhD can be a very isolating experience, even if you’re around loved ones. It’s never easy to explain what you’re doing – not only do you feel self conscious, but for those of us in what you might call more esoteric fields, it can be downright embarrassing.

It’s not that what we exegetical and intellectual historians are doing anything bad, per se. But explaining that you’re examining Bede’s Ecclesiastical History as an eschatological text is going to get you some strange looks. The “ecclesiastical” part will catch the attention for some. The “eschatological” will make others look at you strangely. Explaining what eschatology means is bad enough. I study how Bede built his mental world and how his beliefs about the end of time and geography influenced how he wrote. However, the mention of apocalyptic thinking concerning a Christian writer tends to get you pigeon-holed unnecessarily, and often without follow-up questions. You can tell by the look in the eyes.

So it was with some relief and not a bit of anticipation that myself and 9  fellow Bedans got together at University College Cork last week for a symposium on our research concerning the man himself.

No need to be embarrassed. No need to explain the basics for those who’ve never heard of the guy. Just a chance to talk about the research and bounce a few ideas around the table without an audience. It was also a chance to meet with Peter Darby, who has just published a book on Bede and the end of time (which gave me unfounded panic attacks concerning my own PhD). He’s rather nice.

What was particularly interesting was the breadth of our studies, and we were just a small band of Bedan scholars in one part of the world (from peoples once described by Cummian as “pimples on the face of the Earth“, I must add). Even where our work was in a similar broad field – such as mine and Peter’s – we have gone about it in completely different ways and looked at different source material in many areas.

Many of us, in fact all of us except for Peter, have been moulded in some ways by Jennifer O’Reilly, who also attended the roundtable. At a conference in Galway recently I and a couple of other graduates from Cork’s medieval studies courses were described as “the grandchildren of Jennifer O’Reilly”, which has a certain accuracy. Her analysis of Bede’s ouevre has greatly influenced all of our work, which was apparent during the discussion.

In many ways, we are following in her footsteps, while synthesising an array of different materials into new, original works. Bede might approve.

Stormy summers in Bede’s day

I read the new Wallis-Kendall translations of Bede’s De Natura Rerum and De Temporibus during the week as part of my research into Bede, nature, and time. One passage in DNR struck me:

Pestilence is born from air that has been corrupted on account of the deserts of men either by excessive drought or rains [Isidore, De Rerum Natura]. When the air has been absorbed by breathing or eating, it engenders pestilence and death. Hence we very often observe that the whole of the summer season is transformed into tempests and wintry blasts. These are called ‘storms’ when they come in their own season, but when they come at other times there are called ‘portents’ or ‘signs’.

Although this was written in the early AD700s, The whole air/pestilence thing was a common belief until the nineteenth century, as Wallis and Kendall note in their commentary. But Bede’s line “we very often observe that the whole of the summer season transformed into tempests and wintry blasts” tells us a good deal about the world in which he lived.

It’s fair to say that Bede, living in Jarrow, Northumbria, in the north-east of what is now England, probably did not experience temperatures in the high-30s Celsius. However, Northumbria is not exactly Arctic either. Coming from a country that often experiences rains during summer, I can empathise with the feeling that summer seems full of “tempests and wintry blasts”. This line, which is Bede’s own observation and is not, as far as I can tell, derived from a secondary source such as Isidore, suggests then that Bede lived in a time of frequently cold, wet summers, probably exacerbated by Jarrow’s proximity to the North Sea. Whether he is speaking symbolically is another question though…

Using the past

We all use the past for our own purposes. Some of these are quite innocent, some are not. I’m sure we can all thing of examples for both cases. As you might expect, it has gone on since the invention of writing. Skirmishes became major victories, minor rulers become emperors, and so on and so forth. I’m watching V For Vendetta as I write this, in which a man in a dystopian future uses ideas about the past to inform the present and future. Although there are no Guy Fawkes or revolutionary figures on show here.

Bede: “Should history tell of good men and their estate…”

Some medieval writers were very clear about why they were using the past. Bede, the subject of my PhD, wrote that “should history tell of good men and their estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful or perverse”. Bede’s interpretation is always religious, and for him, learning from “good men and their estate” would inspire people to live good, Christian lives. But by establishing this in the preface, he establishes the precise meaning that he wants the audience to derive from the work. It’s only one facet of the text, but it’s a very important one.

Bede, of course, was not an innovator in this. The Classical world had paideia, and education by good example was an important part of this; consider the qualities extolled in The Odyssey or The Aeneid (although neither are actual histories, they were intended and were understood to be such).

People’s use of the past is often determined by what they need for the present. In Bede’s case, it was to encourage moral and religious reform amid what he believed to be a deep spiritual crisis. By using examples from Anglo-Saxon and continental history, his Ecclesiastical History became a “gallery of good examples”, to quote the oft-repeated phrase of James Campbell. I, like most people working in the field, would hesitate to say that Bede invented aspects of an individual’s character, and he probably did not. However, that is not to say that Bede did not emphasise certain elements in order to inspire the most reform. There are enough facets of King Edwin’s character, for example, that work against him being an ideal Christian ruler when Bede could simply have written them out and made him the Constantine-style ruler that King Oswald is in the EH. Edwin, for example, promises to convert several times but always finds an excuse not to become Christian. Oswald is Christian from the beginning of his reign.

Edwin: Good but not as good as he could have been 

Oswald, for example, becomes more than just a great king in Northumbrian history, he becomes a Northumbrian Constantine who restores and renews Christianity in the kingdom and, in Bede’s account, makes sure the religion becomes so embedded in the realm that it does not flitter away, as it had when Edwin was killed. I wrote a whole MA thesis on this, so I won’t repeat it here. But suffice it to say that Bede thus presents a progression in his people’s history, where they become more solidly Christian and so greater culturally and politically. By implication, these good examples become symbols of what they can achieve and what they stand to lose should they stray too far from the path, as he believes they are. Bede sought to use the past to make the present and future better.

Oswald: Shinier than this picture suggests

Gildas, the British writer of the sixth-century, wrote history for the very same reason, although he was also writing against the backdrop of Saxon invasions and the threat of imminent conquest, which he understood to be divine judgement. He, in turn, used the Bible as a model for his history: prophetic history. Gildas, by identifying current events with ancient patterns, stitched his people into universal history and, in doing so, sought to expose corruption and “sting” the present so that society could be healed.

The Bible was, for Gildas, a “mirror” for his own times. It was a key for medieval writers to unlock not only the past but their own times. By studious analysis of the narratives and themes, they saw patterns in history that they believed were being replicated in their own days. Bede too looked into the Bible and saw it as a reflection of the present. When commenting on the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the exile to Bablyon (in the book of Kings), he says that the “allegory of so lamentable a history fits so well with the negligence of our own time”, but with Jerusalem standing for the Church and Bablyon for “the city of the devil”. Much of what I’m doing is recreating this sort of early-medieval mindset, because by studying the historian I can more effectively study the history.

The study of the Bible and commentary on the texts, exegesis, informed a good deal of medieval history writing. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is, as Benedicta Ward noted, as much theology as it is history. I’m not much of a theologian, but I have always been a decent literary critic and analyst, so those skills are very much coming to bear on the structure and development of Bede’s writing. It is a very different intellectual world from the one we inhabit, and as such it becomes all the more of a puzzle.

I suppose a fair question to ask at this point is, ‘How do I use history?’ I am no prophet or theologian. For me, history is a way to explore the past, both at a cultural and intellectual level. I can pick up a book and chip a way into a world now lost to us. It’s probably why I favour ancient and medieval history; the modern is just too familiar. While I have learned much from my study of history, I seek to learn and teach rather than mould wider society. I don’t have the specific drive of a Bede or a Gildas, or perhaps I do but with a different focus.

Having scribbled thus I feel there is a lot more to be said on the subject. I will return to it now and again, methinks. But for now, I shall let history tell its own stories.

Bede, you drive me crazy

For the last few days I have been finalising and editing a paper I am going to deliver at the Imbas conference in Galway next weekend. To say it has been frustrating is to put it mildly.

Admittedly, part of this is my fault. I should know by now that no matter how simple or straightforward a Bede paper appears, it is much more complicated than at first thought. Or, even if it turns out to be relatively straightforward, fitting it all into a 20-minute paper is another thing entirely. I seem to have a habit of picking big topics.

This paper focuses on Bede and the lay pastor. But it’s showing that they were needed because of a sense of a coming apocalypse. I know, I know. Me and apocalypses.

The only really frustrating side of this was fitting it into a 20-minute argument. There’s easily 6,000 words of an article in this, maybe more. At least with the paper it focuses me to get my thoughts together and condense the information into key points.

I found that I had the bones of the paper done in a couple of days: most of what I’m talking about is now second nature to me. But trawling through his exegesis and homilies slowed things considerably, and the process of being more selective in my quotations even more so.

When I write, I tend to write so that everything is necessary. If I’ve included background, it’s because I think it’s necessary in order for people to understand what I’m talking about. In this case, I’ve boiled the background down to its most basic points, although I feel it’s detailed enough to show the complexity of the situation. Whether my supervisor will agree is another thing; he may well feel that I’m expecting too much of the audience. My writing demands quite a bit of the reader, apparently, or at least it has in the section of the PhD I’ve put together for the department’s review process (i.e. a section that proves I’ve done a lot of work and know what I’m talking about).

I’ll post the abstract once the paper has been delivered, and I’ll also add a link to the podcast once that’s online.