Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Alex and Rebecca at the British Museum - Part 3, Medieval England.

Well, the third tour on the "learning day at the British |Museum" Alex and I had last week was the Medieval Room.

The Lewis Chessmen
Funnily enough, we had a conversation earlier in the day (after seeing the board game in the Mesopotamian area) where Alex asked me who invented Chess, and I had to confess that I did not know.  I also did not know that we would find the answer in the Medieval England Tour.  The first stop was to this 12th century chess set made of walrus ivory and whale's tooth: The Lewis Chessmen.  Here, we learned that the game of chess originated in India.  We also learned that we can see from this chess set that there was way more traffic between cultures during the medieval times than we used to believe.  You can see here some of the meetings through the British uptake of an Indian game of strategy (to help generals learn about war).  The game was originally banned to the clergy, but eventually, the clergy makes it onto the board!   In the indian version of the game, the "Queen" would have been a General, and the "Bishop" would have been an elephant!  This set was probably from Norway, since the knights are biting on their shields... a practice of the norse bezerkers (designed to send them into a killing frenzy!)

Medieval drinking glass
It was also interesting learning about this drinking glass.  In some ways, it is not totally special: the kind of drinking glass that would have been used in the homes of many of the upper classes.  But in the mixing of materials and styles, and the text telling us who made it, there are again clues to understand commerce during those years, and the movement of styles, artists, materials, etc.  Didn't think it was possible to tell so much of the history of trade and daily life through a cup!

Reliquary for Beckett?
 There was also a great painting of the murder of  Thomas a Beckett in the Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.  They also had a reliquary... one of those lovely boxes into which the remains of a saint could be placed!  We got to hear how, after the murder, the other monks swooped in to soak up the left over blood and body parts in order to place them in reliquaries, and send them all over europe.  fun for me, since it was a flashback to the history course i took in university on the medieval church... and my bafflement as a 21 year old living in Belgium when i found myself watching profession of the holy blood.  |Yep.  Relics.  Interesting!

The Tring Tiles

We also had fun in front of the Tring Tiles.  These tiles look very 'cartoon', but were totally fun!   They are supposedly stories of Jesus as a child.  They work like cartoons.  Some of them have panels, and you can read them from left to right to follow the story.  Many of the stories show things like Jesus being bullied, Jesus using his powers to kill the bully, and then mary coming along and making jesus bring the person back to life.  uh.... "Bad Jesus!  You bring him back to life right now, and then go to your room!"  :-)  You can also see tiles where parents are trying to lock their kids up so they won't play with the young jesus (no doubt!   on these tiles, he kept 'accidentally' killing kids when he got mad at them!).  In one, the parents lock their kids up in an oven to protect them.  hmmm.... shades of hansel and gretel in THAT tale! 

not my choice of hat...
 And of course, no tour of the medieval era would be complete without a brief moment in front of a suit of mail.  The issue at this point was comparing the outfit of a knight from the chess set (when knights were riding stocky little ponies), to their later counterparts who were required to wear heavier armour because of the invention of the crossbow and longbow. 

Fishpool Hoard
 It didn't take too much imagination to construct a picture of knights fighting both for honor, and for piles of gold coins.  I loved the Fishpool Hoard, a glass case full of 1200 15th century gold coins, found somewhere in Nottingham in 1966.  I think these coins (from the war of the roses) would make a really fantastic necklace!   I suspect, had I been the one to find the hoard, that it would have arrived at the museum just short of the number of coins necessary for such a work of art!


  1. The talk about the armour made me think of the Wallace Collection, another lovely, free museum full of European and Oriental armour, among other things.

    But that will be a trip for another day.

  2. Nice sword! looks too scary for fencing class though!

  3. Flashpool hoarde is such an evocative name. I think The "flashpool hoarde necklace" sounds awesome. even better than the rings that rule them all.


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