medieval history

Lewes, Sussex: Lewes Castle

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Lewes is a town in Sussex that is probably most famous for its exuberant Bonfire Night celebrations (which I’ve never been to, as I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea behind Guy Fawkes Day at the best of times, and people who are really enthusiastic about burning things in effigy kind of freak me out.  Also, fireworks scare me, and I’m terrified of being hit in the eye with a firecracker or something), but the rest of the year, it is a very middle class kind of place (typical of much of the South) with streets lined with antique shops, secondhand bookshops, and even an artisan bakery (which is, regardless of what this may say about me, exactly the sort of place I enjoy, especially the aforementioned bakery.  It’s called Flint Owl Bakery, and the cheese straws and raspberry friands (or butter muffins, as I like to call them) are amazing).  Whew, that was a long run-on sentence.  At any rate, in addition to stuffing myself with pastries, and visiting the shop at Harvey’s Brewery with my boyfriend (since he accompanied me to all the history), I also had time to visit Lewes Castle.

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The castle offers half priced entry for English Heritage members, which they sneakily don’t really mention, I had to ask as I saw it listed in the official English Heritage handbook, but it’s £7 without the discount (they do a combined ticket with Anne of Cleves House, which I’ll discuss in the next post).  The castle itself was built in 1069 by William de Warenne, Norman nobleman and brother-in-law to William the Conqueror, and was the scene of the Battle of Lewes in 1264.

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Seeing the castle pretty much consists of walking up a shit-ton of stairs, and not just any stairs, but really narrow and uneven winding staircases, so this is maybe not the place to go if you have mobility issues.  Personally, I’m fit as a fiddle, but I’m slightly scared of heights, and in particular steep staircases and ladders and stuff where I feel like I might fall and die, so it wasn’t really my cup of tea either, but I persevered (it helped that it wasn’t super busy, so there weren’t people trying to climb up staircases whilst I was going down, or vice versa.  I hate when that happens!).

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On each level of the castle (which was in two separate parts, the Barbican and the Shell Keep), there were small displays about its history, including a really long comic strip about the Battle of Lewes (which was useful, as I’d never heard of it before; medieval history not really being my thing (aside from the Black Death of course).  It was where Henry III fought a group of barons led by Simon de Montfort).  I also learned that the castle was used as a folly in Georgian times, gotta love those Georgians!

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The views from the top were of course pretty spectacular, since the castle is the highest point in Lewes, and looks out over the South Downs, for all that it was kind of a bitch to get up there.

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I think I enjoyed the Barbican more than the Shell Keep because they had some games that were undoubtedly intended for children, but as there were none around, I took control of the medieval crane and built a kick-ass castle of my own.  They also had a huge chest of dress-up stuff.   20140621_143752

After finishing with the castle (which didn’t take that long to see, sans all the climbing, as there wasn’t really that much information inside), we headed over to the small museum next door, in the building where we bought tickets.  This was mainly on archeological digs in Lewes and around Sussex – lots of prehistoric and Roman rusty things that I was not super interested in.  They had a map of all the discoveries in the area on the wall, but the coolest stuff wasn’t in their collection, like a creepy stone face-thing.  They did have a Roman milestone, which was neat.

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The upstairs part was slightly better, as it had some cool Georgian jugs and other (relatively) more recent artefacts, in addition to an extensive display on medieval life in Lewes based on some of the things they’d dug up.

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In keeping with the general ambiance of Lewes, there was a secondhand bookshop in the museum that specialised in local history books, and a gift shop that had an excellent magnet featuring the Lewes Martyrs being burnt at the stake, but that was all there was to the complex.  I did like exploring the castle, especially as it felt mostly untouched, but the museum wasn’t the greatest, and I left feeling glad we got the discount, as I would have been slightly salty about paying full price for what was on offer, so I’ll give it a middling 3/5.

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I can’t leave Lewes (even though I’m coming back to it next time) without mentioning that Thomas Paine, the writer and philosopher so beloved of the fathers of the American Revolution, lived here for about a decade.  As an American who loves history, I was super excited to learn this, and made sure to grab a picture with his commemorative plaque.  There’s also a pub called the Rights of Man after one of his most famous works (save Common Sense of course) across the street.  I didn’t have a chance to stop in, but it’s a Harvey’s pub (naturally) with an excellent sign featuring his portrait and his giant out-of-proportion hand.  This isn’t really relevant to the post, but I thought it was a point of interest, especially for American history buffs.

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Copenhagen, Denmark: National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet)

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I think the National Museum of Denmark was way too big for me to thoroughly review it without stretching into 5000+ words, so I’m going to do my best to give an overview, and some highlights (and still go way over 1000 words, nuts to brevity!).  The Nationalmuseet is on a scale similar to that of the National Museum of Scotland, and probably most other national museums in countries where the collections aren’t divided up into individual museums for art, antiquities, social history, etc.  Really we should have allowed two days for it, but all the museums in Denmark are closed on Mondays, and Tuesday was our last day in Copenhagen, so we had no choice but to cram it all into one exhausting afternoon.

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The first thing we noticed, thanks to the banners hanging outside, was that there was a temporary viking exhibition on (they always have viking stuff, but this particular exhibit is only on until November).  Entrance to the museum, and Viking (as the exhibition is so eloquently called, which makes me want to insert an exclamation mark after it) is free, but admittance to is by timed ticket, so be sure to pick one at the admissions desk when you arrive to ensure you get a slot. We had about 45 minutes to kill before Viking(!) so thought we’d pop into the Middle Ages and Renaissance collections, not realising that the gallery just went on and on and on, and once you got sucked in, it was a long way back to the exit.

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Most of it was the sort of stuff you’d expect: religious art (see Sad Jesus being sad above), suits of armour, and fancy furniture, but a few things stood out.  The tiny coffin above was pretty awesome; there was even a wax worm crawling out of the corpse’s nose!  I really liked the replicas of typical rooms in various kinds of early modern households.  They also had a few remaining artefacts from the Kunstkammer belonging to one of the King Christians (I have no recollection of which one it was, sorry!) which the catalyst for the foundation of the Nationalmuseet.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to give most of the galleries more than a cursory glance, as it was past time to enter Viking(!), which was in an extremely dark room on the second floor.  I didn’t get to play the Viking(!) game, as the guide was taking forever to explain it to the people in front of me, and I got sick of waiting, so I don’t know whether that would have enhanced my experience, but I wasn’t that impressed.  It was basically just a random scattering of objects with descriptions that I didn’t really get to read, as the other people in there were hogging the touchscreens (and I always get slightly annoyed when signs are all on a special screen, instead of having a plaque on each object). The best part was writing a message on a special “rock” with runes (it is my Viking name, which I have decided is Jessica the Surly.  You’ll probably agree it’s apt), but I still much preferred the permanent collections, and ended up wishing we had skipped Viking(!) and devoted more time to them.  Oh well.

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The Nationalmuseet had a tonne of ethnographic collections, but it seemed similar to stuff I could see at the British Museum, and my feet were killing me, so we skipped it in favour of Danish history.  “Stories of Denmark,” which dominates the second floor, seemingly contains something on every aspect of post-1600 Danish history.  It was another giant gallery, with maze-like hallways that wound off in random directions, so I’m  not convinced we saw the entire thing, but that didn’t seem possible without backtracking.  I don’t know much about Danish history, but this exhibit made it seem similar to much of the rest of Northern Europe, except most of the kings were called Christian, and one of them seemed to have abnormally huge eyes, or a terrible portraitist.

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There was a small collection of torture implements hidden in one corner, and other interesting bits strewn throughout, though as I said, I was genuinely quite glad to have the opportunity to learn more about Danish history anyway.  For example, I learned that they had a revolution of sorts in 1848, which led to the creation of their first constitution, and also influenced the production the excellent chamberpot shown below.  Not that I condone violence against the nobility, but the verse under the picture translates to, “Both traitors to be sure, so on you Danish piss we pour.” Ok, it’s not the most amazing rhyme (it probably sounds better in Danish), but it’s funny nonetheless.

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It was quite gratifying to see an Aebleskiver pan amongst the collections.  I know they’re a big thing in certain parts of America (not Cleveland though, we’re not really known for our Danish population), but Americans have a knack for taking the best, most fattening dishes from other countries, that are only eaten on special occasions in their country of origin, and turning them into everyday things (I’m not knocking it, it is what it is, and American paczki are FAR superior to Polish ones), so it was nice to see that Danish people do actually eat aebleskiver, even just at Christmas.  Wasn’t really helpful on my quest to eat some, but still.

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Though they’re best known as the inventors of Lego, the Danes do seem to love all toys, and the museum had a special toy gallery, with a rather good dollhouse collection. They were all open at the back, so you could peek behind to see the interiors.  The toys only took up two rooms, and then we found ourselves back into Danish social history, this time 20th century.  I put some Elvis on the jukebox as a nice soundtrack for walking around the rest of the gallery, which included a mock hashish hut like the ones you’ll find in Christiania (with authentic smells!).  I’m pretty positive we took a picture of it, but now I can’t find it.  Sorry.

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I was incredibly hungry and cranky at this point, as I’d only had two small cinnamon rolls for breakfast, but my boyfriend had heard they had a noteworthy longship in the permanent Viking collections, so we trudged through the entire ground floor to get to it (turns out we could have gone in from the opposite direction, but we didn’t realise that until after).  I saw a lot of Viking ships on this trip, so I don’t think it particularly stood out, but I was SUPER cranky.  (In fairness to me, it was my birthday, so I think I was entitled to be a bit of a brat.  I don’t know what my excuse is the rest of the time.)  We totally skipped over Danish pre-history and classical antiquities, so I can’t comment on them.

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I think the moral of the story here may be that if you want to take advantage of all the Nationalmuseet has to offer, give yourself at least two afternoons there, and take snack breaks!  Even though I wasn’t in the best mood, it was undeniably a very nice museum, and everything had an English caption in addition to the Danish one.  If you only have a short time to spend there, I think “Stories of Denmark” or the Renaissance galleries are the way to go, depending on your interests (I’m sure the Viking gallery is good as well, but there are loads of Viking museums all throughout Denmark, so I preferred to devote my time to lesser known eras of Danish history).  4/5

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Kali…Kali Ma!!!!

 

 

Graz, Austria: Landeszeughaus (Styrian Armoury)

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As I mentioned in my previous post, the other reason I was so keen on going to Graz (besides the pretzels, obviously), was the Styrian Armoury.  Around 5-6 years ago, I went to a medieval armour exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art.  Like most of the special exhibitions at CMA, it was incredible.  They’d managed to acquire an unbelievable quantity of armour from around the world, including, most memorably, an entire army’s worth of pikemen, which they has arranged in impressive battle formation.  At the time, I noted that most of the collection was on loan from the Graz Armoury, and added it to my mental list of places to visit.

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Perhaps because armour is one of the few tangible reminders we have of the medieval era, or perhaps because it conjures up the imagery of jousting, chivalry, and glory which I suspect we all like to associate with the Middle Ages, no matter how far removed it is from reality, I’ve always had a soft spot for armour. (I feel this is an ideal time to insert a book recommendation regarding the fallacy of popular perceptions of medieval Europe: Ian Mortimer’s excellent Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England). Because of this, I’ve been to quite a few other armouries; most notably the Royal Armouries in Leeds (which I really should get around to writing a review of).  The Styrian Armoury was nothing like those.

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I think the Royal Armouries might be an exception, in that they seemed to be more about the history of British warfare in general, and included lots of fun interactives, but all of the other armouries I’ve visited follow a similar format.  There will usually be a striking centrepiece of a knight on a horse in full battle armour, surrounded by cases of various weapons, and some suits of armour belonging to famous (or at least wealthy) people, with captions throughout.  The Styrian Armoury effectively decides to do away with all that pesky (helpful?) reading and carefully arranged displays, choosing instead to cram as much crap into a tall, narrow building as is physically possible.

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Your 8 euro entrance fee gains you access to a darkened, cluttered labyrinth of metal.  The Armoury is spread out (I use that term loosely) over 5 or 6 floors (I lost track after a while), and you’re left to wander it at will, though under the constant hawk-like gaze of the staff.  All the surveillance was a bit puzzling, actually, since I was required to leave my (normal sized) purse in a locker at the entrance, so I’m not sure how they thought I was going to steal anything.  Was I just going to stick a giant sword under my arm and walk out?  Who knows, I guess people are capable of anything.  At any rate, despite the heavy staff presence, none of them were forthcoming with any information about the place.  I saw an audio guide mentioned online, but no one at the admissions desk offered it to us (though we probably would have been too cheap to get it anyway), and there were quite literally no signs of any kind in the armoury.

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I honestly don’t think I’ve ever left a museum before knowing less about it than I did when I walked in, but I feel that’s what happened at the Styrian Armoury.  From what I’ve been able to cobble together on the internet, I believe everything there was for the purpose of equipping the Styrian forces, and that it was a sort of communal arsenal that they would collect their armour from in times of war.  That would explain the unusual layout, as well as the sheer size of the collection.  Most of it was identical, e.g. a wall of matching shields, or a shelf of helmets, rather than the finely wrought detail and unique design of privately commissioned armour, which is what makes up the bulk of collections elsewhere. I’m not even sure if the armour here was properly medieval, as their website claims the collection dates from the 15th-18th centuries, but the building itself is 17th century, which would make it Early Modern instead.  Ugh, so many questions!

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My most pressing question, however, remains this: what happened to all the codpieces?  After passing wall after wall of breastplates and pikes, I was all geared up for the inevitable wall of codpieces.  Alas, there was not a codpiece to be found in the entire armoury, not even on the otherwise complete suits of armour.  I want to know how the men of Styria protected their, erm, manhood. Every other armoury I’ve been to has had codpieces galore, so why not here?

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See, not a codpiece in sight!

I suppose all my questions will have to remain unanswered, as the complete dearth of information at the armoury left me feeling clueless. It’s a shame, because I really liked the atmosphere of the armoury, and the, shall we say, eclectic arrangement of their collection, but if I visit something historical, I want to learn all that I can about it.  The Styrian Armoury left me feeling at a loss.

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I’m only going to give the Styrian Armoury a 2/5.  It was neat to be able to see so much armour in one place, but I really don’t think it would kill them to throw up a few signs.  After seeing the amazing exhibit the Cleveland Museum of Art was able to put together with the same objects, I can’t help but feel that the Styrian Armoury suffers from a real lack of effort.  And 8 euros frankly seems pretty steep for something that doesn’t appear to have been curated at all. It’s probably worth checking out if you’re in the area already, and exceedingly bored, but I wouldn’t make a special trip there the way we did.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with the armoury, but Graz had some amazingly creamy and delicious ice cream (eis).  This picture was taken after I'd already eaten about half the scoop, and it only cost 1.20!  The perfect way to ease my disappointment over the armoury.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with the armoury, but Graz had some amazingly creamy and delicious ice cream (eis). This picture was taken after I’d already eaten about half the scoop, and it only cost 1.20! The perfect way to ease my disappointment over the armoury.