Medieval biological weapons

I picked up a book the other day about ancient biological and chemical weapons. I was a little surprised that it has a chapter on insect weapons. It not that I don’t think insects can be a weapon, as we saw in my recent post on the defense of Chester, it’s just that I didn’t think of them as a biological weapon.

In the case of Chester, its seems as though the bee hives are a last-ditch method to repel the Vikings. On the other hand, bee hives would have been common in medieval cities and monasteries.  Bees are about the only insect that I can think of in northern Europe that could be used as intentional weapons. I doubt wasps could be found in high enough numbers to use as a weapon.

Can anyone think of other examples of biological weapons used in early medieval Britain? More bees, wasps, venom, or intentional spread of disease? Poisoning wells is one of the oldest tricks in the book but I can’t think of any examples of it off-hand, can you? Poisoning wells is, I think, usually considered an act of biowarfare because the most common way to poison a well (or spring) is to dump dead bodies or animal carcases in it.

Oswine the Anti-Hero

(A post from the archive on the anniversary of King Oswine’s death.)

King Oswine of Deira (Yorkshire) 20 August 651

Modern Eastern Orthodox icon of King Oswine of Deira

Today is the anniversary of the execution of King Oswine of Deira, considered by some to be a saint. All we know of Oswine is included in Bede’s History (Book III:14). Bede writes a curious tale for Oswine.

“King Oswine was tall and handsome, pleasant of speech, courteous in manner, and bountiful to nobles and common alike; so it came about that he was beloved by all because of his royal dignity which showed itself in his character, his appearance, and his actions; and noblemen from almost every kingdom flocked to serve him as retainers. Among all the other graces of virtue and modesty with which, if I may say so, he was blessed in a special manner, his humility said to have been the greatest” (McClure and Collins, ed; 1994:132)

This all seems well and good. Bede proceeds to narrate an example of Oswine’s great humility to St. Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne. However, at the end of the episode, Aidan turns to an Irish colleague and says “I know that the king will not live long; for I never before saw a humble king. Therefore I think that he will very soon be snatched from this life; for this nation does not deserve to have such a ruler.” (p. 133). Oswine death follows and Aidan himself dies only 12 days “after the murder of the king he loved”. The implication is that Aidan dies of a broken heart.

Bede actually begins his tale with Oswine’s murder/execution. Oswine has gathered his army to meet King Oswiu (who would later rule at the Synod of Whitby) in battle near Catterick. When Oswine realized how outnumbered he was by Oswiu, he disbanded his army and went into hiding with a retainer he believes is his friend. This retainer betrayed him to Oswiu who had his rival executed. There is no doubt that this murder caused an outrage in the church. Oswiu’s queen, Eanflaed, was the cousin of Oswine and demanded a weregeld (blood price) paid by the founding of the monastery of Gilling where prayer was to be offered daily for the soul of King Oswine and his murderer King Oswiu.

The question is why does Bede include the story in his History. There is no evidence that he sees Oswine as anything other than a sad victim. Bede provides no evidence that Oswine was considered to be a saint by his day. Oswine was much later reported to be buried at Tynemouth, not the new monastery of Gilling.

The usual explanation is that Bede includes the story because his beloved Abbot Coelfrith came from Gilling, Coelfrith’s family monastery (meaning that Coelfrith was also a kinsman of Oswine). This isn’t really a very satisfying answer. Gilling had ceased to exist before Bede was born and Coelfrith is not mentioned in the story. An interesting side note is that Gilling seems to disband as a monastery after the plague of 664 when all the surviving monks joined Abbot Wilfrid at Ripon (victor of the synod of Whitby the same year). Thus within months of deciding for Rome, the monastery Oswiu had to found as weregeld/penance was allowed to disappear.

Another explanation is that it was part of Aidan’s death story. This isn’t very satisfying either because Aidan’s death is not elaborated on, as it is in a later chapter (which doesn’t mention Oswine at all). These look like two reports of Aidan’s death.

The chapter begins with an assessment of Oswiu’s reign and the next chapter records a miracle of Aidan’s in assisting in the arrival of Eanflaed to her marriage to Oswiu. The context of the story places it within Oswiu’s story as Oswald’s successor. Miracles of St. Aidan and Aidan’s death are then inserted. After Aidan comes the life and death of pious King Sigeberht of East Anglia who had entered a monastery, but his people pulled him out of the monastery to lead them into battle against Penda, the evil pagan of Bede’s History. Sigeberht refused to carry a weapon in to battle and rode to his death carrying only his royal scepter.

Bede has set up a story of three example kings

  • Oswald: Bede’s ideal king: brave, victorious in battle, supporter of the church and evangelist, humble enough to translate Aidan’s sermons before his people, but not too humble to loose their respect, protector of his people up to his death.
  • Oswine: too humble to be a king. A perfect picture of a king, but when it came down to it, not brave enough to ride in to battle and die. He is an anti-hero.
  • Sigebert: a pious king, but nevertheless Bede did not favor kings who retired to monasteries. The fact that his people came to him to lead them in battle suggests that he once was victorious in battle and was still young and healthy enough to do so again. He did not protect his people. Penda destroys the army, Sigebert’s co-king, and then ravages the monasteries and people of East Anglia.

Bede believed that people should live up to the position in life they were given: king, bishop, monk, commoner. A king should be a good king: protector of the people, patron of the church, obedient to the bishop. He offers Oswine as an example to his readers of how a king should not behave.

Perhaps he was also eager to ensure that King Oswiu would not be too glorified. He tallied plenty of pious attributes during his 28 year reign. He may have been the greatest patron of the church of his age, judge at the synod of Whitby, and slayer of Northumbria’s worst enemy (Penda of Mercia), but he was also capable of murdering his rivals and having his own kinsmen, his nephew Oethelwald son of Oswald and his own son Alhfrith, rebel against him. His rebellious kinsmen are never heard from again. Bede does make sure to casually mention these rebellions in the beginning of the chapter before he narrates Oswine’s story. The execution of Oswine may be Bede’s way of indicating the fates of Oethelwald and Alhfrith by implication in a way that would not offend the contemporary rulers of Northumbria.

The 300 (or 303)

When you think of ‘the 300′ you probably think of the recent movie on the famous Spartan-Persian battle of antiquity. Considered by historians all around as a pivotal battle in antiquity, the number 300 either spawned a legend that spread all the way to the British Isles or was such a common symbolic number that the Greek numbers are pure legend as well. If you look at the old Welsh legends and literature nearly every famed retinue, accounting of war dead, or size of an army is listed as 300 (or 303). When you look at it in a source like the Welsh Triads it is obvious that it’s a legendary motif (or meme?). If I recall correctly, the famed collection of elegies, Y Gododdin, refers to either an army of 300 or 300 dead (or both).

This all came to mind this afternoon as I continue to read Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland (2009) where he writes on the battle of Miathi that

“Here it is said that 303 men were slain in Aidan’s service, which must represent a substantial proportion of his fighting strength. The point of the hagiographical story about this battle was probably to emphasize c. 640 the (former) efficacy of Columba’s patronage and protection of the family of Domnall Brecc, Aidan’s grandson. None the less, that a precise number of casualties was remembered suggests that the battle was famous and widely known to be very bloody. Columba’s hagiographer probably chose it from a list of Aedan’s several battles because a narrow victory illustrated his point best.” (p. 137)

Setting aside the importance of the battle of Miathi and Adomnan’s choice of it for the moment, we can have no confidence in the 303 tally. Whether Adomnan got the account of this battle from the Cummine Find’s collection of Columba’s miracles or directly from oral legends of Aedan, the earliest is could have been written was 30 years later and perhaps nearly a hundred years. What the 303 deaths tell me is that the hagiographical writer, Adomnan or Cummine, got it from oral history. Yes, it must have had the reputation as an important and/or bloody battle. However, probably what made the battle important is that two of Aidan’s sons fell in the victory, and it was a costly victory. Reports of an army of 300 or 300 (303) casualties are worthless. The number 303 does come up elsewhere so this exact number does not give any more confidence than 300. The importance of these numbers goes back to ancient symbolic use of the number 3. I don’t study the meaning given to numbers enough to be able to explain why multiples of 3 are found so often in folklore and mythology but they are.

Getting back to the battle of the Maithi in Fraser’s quote above: When Adomnan was writing in c. 700, the Scots had long lost control of Manu/Miathi territory to the Picts and Bernicians, so it was a reminder of territory now lost. Domnall Brecc, whose behavior is credited with loosing  St Columba’s protection, fell near Miathi territory and his death may have been the final Dalriadan effort to control the area. Adomnan may also be saying that St Columba provided Aedan with a victory over the Maithi but Domnall Brecc lost Columba’s protection and his life in territory possibly controlled by the Miathi. I suspect it was the region of Manu/Miathi territory that made this battle Adomnan’s choice rather than because it was a narrow victory. In the Life of Columba, Adomnan narrates Columba’s prediction that Domnall Brecc’s father  Eochiad will succeed King Aedan, and that Eochiad’s  two elders brothers will die before Aedan in the battle against the Maithi. In a later chapter he shows Columba prophecizing that Aedan is about to loose the battle against the Maithi unless they all pray for him, which they do and a costly victory is won.

So Adomnan’s scheme is:

  • Columba’s prayerful intervention gives Aedan victory over the Maithi perhaps consolidating some of his furthest won territory (that gives them a border with both the Picts and Bernicians),
  • Columba prophecizes that two of Aedan’s sons will die before him and they do in this battle
  • prophecizes that Eochaid will succeed, making Domnall’s eventual succession possible.
  • says that Columba’s protection of Aedan (and Eochaid’s) line will last as long as they do not cross Columba’s family in Ireland

We know from Cummine’s information inserted into the Life of Columba that Aedan’s grandson Domnall did make an alliance and fight againt Columba’s kin in Ireland and that since that time Dalriada had been dominated by outsiders. We know from the annals that Domnall died in battle at Strathcarron, which is very near Miathi territory.  Indeed, Fraser places Strathcarron within an enlarged Maithi region. It is possibly within the area that his grandfather Aedan had won control over after his battle against the Miathi. Adomnan ties up Domnall Brecc’s betrayal to the familia of St Columba (monastic and blood family) and its consequences in a nice little package that would have been obvious to anyone who read it at the time. The insertion of Cummine Find’s text into a later copy of the Life of Columba (preserving an otherwise lost text for us) is proof that Adomnan’s contemporaries understood exactly what he was saying and added these notes proof from Cummine’s text.