The Other Pompeii: Life & Death in Herculaneum; Chivalry & Betrayal: The Hundred Years War

Pompeii is the city most often mentioned when talking about the places destroyed by Vesuvius erupting in 79AD, but Andrew Wallace-Hadrill explained that Herculaneum actually tells us even more about how the Romans lived than Pompeii does. He started this programme by explaining that the way that Herculaneum was covered up by the ash from Vesuvius means that there is a lot of stuff preserved in Herculaneum that isn’t preserved in Pompeii.

So as well as buildings and the wall paintings & mosaics, there is also a lot of wooden furniture that has survived. This includes things like decorated wooden screens between rooms, or beds and so on. Some of these pieces of wood still have traces of paint & he showed us some wooden ceiling panels where that’s the case. He was telling us that they’ve done analysis of the paint traces and then showed a reconstruction of the vivid colours that it would’ve had originally. Also along that sort of line he showed us the head of a marble statue that had been discovered still with a large amount of the original paint – the hair was a ginger colour and you could see the painted eyelashes & irises of the eyes.

The preservation of wooden objects in Herculaneum also means that a lot of the town’s legal documents were preserved – originally these would’ve been written on wax tablets and the wax is long gone but the traces of the writing are still visible on the carbonised wooden frames. These documents are invaluable for telling us about the inhabitants of the various houses and their lives. He told us about one set of tablets that were a slave girl challenging her status – we don’t know if she won or not, but she was able to go to court and have witnesses called to determine if her mother was a slave when she was born or not (which would determine her own status). He also showed us the citizenship documents of an ex-slave who had managed to make use of the legal system once he was freed in order to become a citizen. Upward mobility appeared to be very common among the inhabitants of Herculaneum, and there were many freed slaves. Interestingly Margaret Mountford said in her programme about Pompeii that Herculaneum was a resort town, but Wallace-Hadrill didn’t mention that idea at all.

When we got to the segment of the programme about the sewers I remembered what we’d seen Wallace-Hadrill in before – Mary Beard’s programme about Pompeii had a section on the Herculaneum sewers where she talked to Wallace-Hadrill (he is the main man in the Herculaneum conservation project after all). Here he spoke to the people doing the investigation of the organic material from the sewers. They told us about the diet of the inhabitants of Herculaneum – a lot of fish, unsurprisingly for a town on the coast of the Bay of Naples. It seems Romans liked their fish whole & crunchy, the fish bones found in the sewers showed signs of digestion even the ear bones from the fish. Wallace-Hadrill then went to a market in the modern town & showed us that much of the fish & of the fruit & veg are still available today.

To corroborate the evidence from the sewers there is also data from the bones of the people found in the boat sheds. Wallace-Hadrill talked to the anatomists who are investigating these bones. They have done some analysis to see what sort of diets people ate (as this shows up in the bone composition) and this backed up the idea of a fish-rich diet. It also showed a lot of variety, they said it was hard to tell what factors affected who ate meat or fish and who was mostly vegetarian because of the social mobility meaning it was hard to identify who was or was not a slave or higher status. One thing they emphasised a lot while talking about the skeletons was that this is a unique resource – it’s a sample of about 10% of the population of the town from a variety of backgrounds & lifestyles. Because they all died simultaneously in this disaster it’s a snapshot of what the town was actually like.

An interesting programme, particularly when put together with the “how did they die” one we watched last week 🙂

The other programme of the evening was the first episode of a series about the Hundred Years War presented by Janina Ramirez. We’ve seen some of her programmes before – she did one about what medieval illuminated manuscripts tell us about the Kings of England, and one about Anglo Saxon treasures.

The Hundred Years War is a conflict between England and France in which started in the 14th Century. In this first programme Ramirez started off by setting the scene – when Edward III came to the throne of England in 1327 he was not just the King of England but also held two duchies within the kingdom of France for which he had to pay homage to the King of France. Edward also believed that via his mother he was entitled to the French crown once the King of France died. However the French disagreed & his cousin Philip took the throne. At this time the French and English courts were tied together not just by blood, they also spoke the same language (French) and had a common culture of chivalry.

Edward refused to pay homage to the new King of France, which lead Philip to try to confiscate his duchy of Aquitaine. Then Edward declared himself the rightful King of France and this started the war. The first major battle was at Caen, where Ramirez pointed out the unpleasant side of chivalry as a concept – it didn’t apply to everyone equally, fellow knights would be taken prisoner & properly treated if they made themselves known. But the townsfolk at Caen were slaughtered wholesale by the English army. After this victory Edward III marched his army nearly to Paris, and then lured the French army to Crécy where he and his army waited at the top of a hill. This battle was a disaster for the French, in large part because Edward III completely ignored the chivalric rules of war. Instead of allowing the numerically greater number of French Knights to close with the English Knights and fight it out he had stationed two divisions of longbowmen (who weren’t nobly born) to target the French as they advanced. The resulting slaughter of both men & horses was responsible for Edward winning the battle. The army then went on to Calais, where they also won.

I think we skipped forward about 10 years here – Ramirez told us some stuff about what was going on in England during this time but I think there weren’t any major battles in France. One of the significant events was the formation of the Order of the Garter – meant to call to mind the Knights of the Round Table this was an elite order of 26 Knights. But as usual Edward’s version of chivalry was heavily leavened with practicality – these Knights were chosen based on their demonstrated ability on the field of battle. The French King created his own order of Knights in response – the Order of the Star. Instead of 26 handpicked proven warriors this order consisted of about 500 Knights, who all swore an oath not to leave the battlefield while they could still fight.

The next campaigns were led by Edward’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince. He started with his army from Aquitaine & marched towards Carcassone in the east. As the army passed through France they destroyed any villages, farms or mills they came across. They took the food they needed on the march and then burnt the rest. Once they reached Carcassone the knights at the town retreated into their fortifications, and the English could lay waste to the town (and kill the townsfolk). Again chivalry didn’t count for the ordinary people. Once the English had headed back to Aquitaine again, having made their point, the French King wrote a letter to the townspeople saying how he was sorry they’d suffered (but not actually doing anything about it). Ramirez emphasised how this campaign was a statement of power – look how the English could destroy the land and livelihoods of the French people and their King couldn’t do anything about it.

The Black Prince’s next campaign the following year went northeast from Aquitaine in much the same way. It ended up at Poitiers, where this time the French army was waiting for them. This time the English didn’t have the advantage of high ground, nor the surprise of their archers, but nonetheless they still won – and took the King of France (by this stage Philip had died and Jean II was King) into custody. He and other noble prisoners were taken back across the channel to England and held hostage. A truce was declared at this point (mostly due to the Black Death, Ramirez was saying) and then after a while a peace treaty was signed that gave Edward more lands in France (around Aquitaine mostly). He also held all his French lands in his own right, not as a vassal of the King of France. In return Edward was to renounce his claim to the throne of France … only somehow he never got round to that bit!