Where to go and how to get there


My dad loved maps. Trip planning was his favorite pastime, and it didn’t matter if it wasn’t his trip he was planning. If someone he knew even mentioned that they heard about someone else going on a trip, he planned it for them. The dining room table would be covered in folding maps, atlases, scribbled notes on scraps of notepaper. He drew arrows, and lines, and annotated every town and scenic overlook and point of interest on the proposed route.

Once, when I was driving from the east coast to Washington State to get on a ferry to Alaska for a job, he had me roaring across the plains at breakneck pace so I could get to a certain truckstop that he had heard made the best cheeseburgers in the country in time for dinner. Don’t get me wrong; it was a great cheeseburger. But that cheeseburger was the only reason I was even in Montana!

Our family trips were always major productions. We moved so frequently, each summer holiday was a relocation process, involving cars, trains, planes, boats, dogsled (no, seriously, that happened twice), water buffalo (also totally true), ambulance (nobody was injured, it was just a very small island and that was the only available vehicle), elephant, you name it, I probably rode it on my way to another new home. We always took a broadly circuitous route, detouring hundreds of miles sometimes in order to see all the things on his carefully crafted itinerary.

“Guess what? We’re going to see the World of Pigeons!”

       “Really?! Is that on the way?”

“Well…sort of. Not precisely. Okay, no. But: World of Pigeons! We can’t miss seeing that!”

He was also the master at packing anything. Luggage, grocery carts, car boots, trunks, cigar boxes, whatever, he would pack and repack until it was the picture of Tetris perfection. We never left on time, but by George, our shit was well sorted!

Some of you who know me well are laughing now, as apparently I have inherited this trait. When I pack for a month-long trip to Europe, it’s a process of several trial runs before I get it organized to my satisfaction. But, much thanks to my dad’s habits, I can indeed pack for a month in a 40L backpack, and still have room to bring home books. It helps that I’m small.

My dad died before smart phones existed, and I often wonder what he would have thought about Google Maps and GPS, and the precision manner in which most people travel now. He was fond of gadgets, so I think he would have loved the ability to find weird stuff to look at or places to eat en route. But I bet you anything he would still have relied on his heavily highlighted, post-it noted, folding maps and atlases. They were like topographical travel journals by the time he was finished with them, dog-eared and coffee-stained, road weary representations of the miles covered and the adventures had.

After I reached adulthood and was traveling on my own, I always followed his plans, without question. He had traveled extensively, knew people everywhere, and constantly read about places he had not yet been, so he had, by the time I was a young adult, a rather encyclopedic knowledge of world travel. Every Christmas he gave me a new road atlas, pre-loaded with his handwritten liner notes about places he thought I might like to go, and names and addresses of people he knew in each state or country he suspected I might pass through that year.

No matter my destination, in geography as well as in life, he was the guy to get me there with the most interesting experiences along the way. And isn’t that the whole point of it all?

But What Has Rome Done For Us…Lately?


But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

The quote above, from the film Life of Brian, is a fair start to a discussion of Roman contributions to the development of modern Western civilisation.  We tend to think of the Roman Empire as having died out long, long ago, and yet its influence is all around us, all the time.

Rome, by way of its longevity as well as its innovative nature, has left us with innumerable legacies.  Three of the most influential of their contributions to western culture are the Latin language and alphabet, Roman road systems, and Roman law.  The Roman organized professional military should also get an honorable mention here, as its incredibly flexible nature changed the way wars were waged.



The Roman contribution to modern legal systems is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it goes virtually unnoticed but for the Latin terminology still in use (habeas corpus, for example).  The Roman legacy of law is found not just in individual laws that carried over, but perhaps more importantly, in the theory of law.  The Romans divided their laws between public law, wherein the state is involved directly, and private law, which dealt with personal disputes.  Modern civil law is based heavily on this system.  The foundation of United States law, that one is innocent until guilt has been proven, comes from Roman law.  Lawmaking in our modern world has its basis in Roman processes as well.  During the republican era, Roman legislation was passed by the comitia, and then approved by the senate.  Many western nations, to include the US, have implemented this dual approval system in their own governments.  The application of written laws as a device of protection of individual citizens from the state is also Roman, and America’s founding fathers implemented that as well.



With the Justinian Code, Rome set up an ordered legal system much emulated in modern western nations, and included a collected case history, the prototype for the case studies of modern law in most western nations.  The Romans were not pillars of morality by our standards, but they did develop and implement a solid formula for justice and law, serving the Roman citizens and setting an example for the ideals of citizenship, government and society.



The Roman road system was instrumental in Rome’s plot to take over the world, as it was by these 80,000 KM of paved roadways that the Roman army, supplies, messengers, merchants, information, mail, news, religious ideas, money, everything made their way from Rome to the rest of the world, and from the rest of the world back to Rome.  Sure, the speed of travel was still limited by one’s horse or shoe construction, but an existing road system crisscrossing most of Europe and beyond changed the world milepost by milepost.

The original purpose of the roads was, of course, military, and beginning with local areas, Rome was connected by these roads to Latium, Ostia, and then they moved further out as the Roman army expanded its territory.  Highways gave the Roman army an advantage in speed and ease of transport of supplies and soldiers.  As with most Roman public works, the roads were built largely by the soldiers as they moved forward, pushing their frontiers further outward.  Besides the accessibility and speed the roads provided the military, commerce, communication (they had a mail service!), and civilian land travel aided the spread of cultures, ideas, Romanization.  Even the Britons at the far reaches of civilization took up Roman ways.  As a result of the roads, a taste for Roman goods developed amongst the native people, and this sometimes happened before the Romans even arrived en masse.  Romanization was heavily encouraged as the Roman method of expansion required natives to become “civilized,” and later citizens. During the earliest periods of Romanization, adopting Roman dress, behaviors, manners, customs, was likely connected with social standing amongst conquered people, their social elites being first to make the change, and on down the line.

roman road.jpg

Roman Road

Goods, troops, and people traveled efficiently across the Empire (provided they were not mugged by bandits at roadside inns, another Roman contribution of happenstance associated with road building).  The Romans understood that solid, paved roads ensured that troops could move toward their front lines in good time, the mere knowledge of which was often enough to keep outlying areas peaceful.  The roads stretched outward from their hub, Rome being the central one, other cities in the Empire establishing secondary or tertiary hubs.  This hub system is in evidence not only in the modern nations where the Empire once stood, but elsewhere, such as in the U.S.  First as railways, later as interstate highways, the Roman idea of travel directly from hub to hub is plain to see across most of western civilization.  Some of the old Roman roads remain in use, and more modern roadways are built atop old Roman ones, as they had already determined the most direct routes from city to city (and those cities, in many cases, remain today).



By far the most important, pervasive and far-reaching influence of Roman civilization is that of the Latin language.  Early Latin was spoken, and written, at least as early as the 6th century B.C.  As Rome developed from a small civilization into a conquering world power, they took their language with them across Europe and the Mediterranean.  Part of the successful process of Romanization throughout the vast Empire was the spread of the Latin language and alphabet.  After Rome divided, even as the western empire was disintegrating, the eastern Empire, speakers of Greek, kept the Latin language in use for official purposes until mid-6th century AD.

But by 600 AD Latin was dying.  During the Dark Ages in Europe, few people outside of monasteries could read at all.  As a result, spoken language changed and took on local peculiarities, giving birth to Italian, French and Spanish linguistic offshoots.  Literate monks still read and wrote in Latin, and through their diligent efforts in preserving ancient texts, especially in monasteries in Ireland, and the use of Latin in church documents, Latin held on by a thread until the Carolingian Renaissance, wherein Charlemagne determined that education was important, and set forth on a campaign to promote literacy in his realm.  Late medieval contact with the learned Arabs (also due great credit for the preservation of classical knowledge) brought about a resurgence of interest in literacy in Europe.  All scholarly writing was done in Latin.

During the Renaissance period, Europeans developed interest in reading classical authors, and incorporating Latin terms in their own languages.  Also, as study of the sciences picked up speed, Latin names and descriptions were used for their findings, in order to share discoveries internationally.  Until the early 1900s, students at university were required to study Latin, and Latin was taught in primary and secondary schools as well, for students to better understand the structure of their own languages.  Post-World War II, the emphasis shifted to the sciences as technology was growing rapidly, and Latin instruction in schools died off.

The Catholic Church used Latin as its required liturgical language up to the mid-1960s.  It is still used in some masses, and the Anglican Church implements it in worship as well, despite Henry VIII and the pope having such a bad breakup.  It remains the state language of the Vatican, used for official purposes much like it was in Byzantium.


A page from the Visconti Hours, National Library Florence. Plague of the Firstborn (Exodus 12:21-30).

Rome gave us our alphabet, and languages developed out of Latin have enough commonality that with little expenditure of time or effort, speakers of one Latin-based language can understand those of another.  French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian all owe heavy debts to Latin.  Furthermore, Latin lent heavy influence to other languages, such as English, as well. The roots of many English words are derived from Latin.  With the exception of the Cyrillic language group, the Latin alphabet is almost universal in Europe and the Americas.  Scientific, medical, legal, theological uses assure Latin’s continued legacy in our modern world.  British and American coins bear Latin text, and where would our everyday communications be without such things as et cetera, versus, and exit?


The Smallest of Prices

Everywhere we lived, my father had a home office. And the best thing about that office was that it was filled with books. Floor to ceiling, stacked in front of his desk, piled under his chair and atop tables, were books ranging in topic from religion to geography, world cultures, dead languages, history, science, and so on. Among them was one large book, with a blue spine, and in it were descriptions and photographs of Istanbul. Markets, mosques, street scenes. It was exotic, even to my travel-jaded eyes, and I wanted to experience the sights and smells for myself.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe obvious apple of my eye, in regard to Istanbul, was the Aya Sofya, or Hagia Sofia. I cannot think of another place so steeped in religious history.  There, my studies of Byzantine, Ottoman, Islamic, and Christian history collide in one breathtaking structure. I simply had to go there.


And so I did, many years later. I saw the Blue Mosque, and viewed the sacred relics in Topkapi Palace, and dined on a terrace overlooking the water. And, indeed, I spent hours in the Aya Sofya, touched the Marble Door, viewed the ancient Christian mosaics, and the mosque was even larger and more beautiful than I had imagined for all those years.

14 million people in a city seems like a terrible crush, and the streets and markets were at times cacophonous, but over the racket of vendors, traffic, and street prophets, the haunting müezzins’ calls to prayer resound. The city is made of magic. The sounds, the scents wafting on the breeze off the Bosphorus, the gentle ways of its inhabitants, all create a sense of calm amidst the chaos. Orhan Pamuk wrote of Istanbul, “If I see my city as beautiful and bewitching, then my life must be so too.”


A friendly guard at Topkapi Palace


I walked through the squares, and parks, and markets, through neighborhoods, and down city streets. I talked to guards and shopkeepers and ladies out walking with their friends and children. The people of Istanbul are friendly and funny, and curious and kind.


Later in the day, full of Turkish delight and nose twitching from sampling the wares in the Egyptian market, where spices are sold, I made my way to the Grand Bazaar.


The gate of the Grand Bazaar

The name is apt; everything about this bazaar is grand. The vendors are endless in every direction, so many I could not see the far end, and in fact never did make my way all the way through to the opposite side. I made a few small purchases: a scarf, a necklace, and by then it was growing late and the sun was setting quickly.


Not prayer rugs, but a sales demonstration inside a rug shop.

As I approached the way out, a man about my age called to me, and asked if I wanted to buy a prayer rug. They were beautiful, and I admired them, but declined. I went on, and there was a bit of a bottleneck as people were leaving through the gate. I stood waiting my turn, and the man came to me again. His English was only slightly better than my Turkish, but we managed nonetheless. He said that he noticed I admired his rugs, and he would cut the price for me, as the hour was late, and he wouldn’t have to carry it back home again.

The price was more than fair, and yet I hesitated, as the idea of carrying a prayer rug across the city, then jamming it into my bag, was a complication I was not sure I was prepared to take on. He held my hand, looked into my eyes, and said, “I will give you this rug, for the smallest of prices: a kiss. A kiss,” he said, “to bring me good fortune.”

Who can say no to that kind of charm? Righty-o, I agreed, he rolled up my rug and handed it to me, and I offered my cheek. Quick as a snake, he landed the most resounding smooch square on my lips, winked, and disappeared into the market.

And that is how I bought my prayer rug for the price of a kiss in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, a magical city where anything can happen.



The Bog Blog


IMG_6924I stood in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin a few months ago, gazing through a thin sheet of plexi at a man. He had laugh lines by his eyes. I could imagine quite easily what his face looked like when he smiled. I saw his eyebrows, his facial stubble, the delicate folds of his ear. He was taller than I expected. His hands were strong, like he had worked hard all of his life. I could also see the places his body had been pinned down. Was he dead before he went into the bog? Probably. I hope so. There is no way to know why he was left there. Did he commit some atrocity that his community could not abide? Was he killed in a tragic accident and left as a post-mortem sacrifice? Did he volunteer to go to his death in the bog, as atonement, or out of sorrow or fervent spiritual belief? Was he a challenger to a position of prestige, killed to make way for another leader? In a body that is so perfectly preserved, there is a great deal of tantalizing information, which leads to even more impossible questions. Who was this man, how did he live and die, and why was he placed in the bog?


Clonycavan Man

Peat bogs of northwestern Europe have been the place of last repose for hundreds, if not thousands, of bodies, for over 10,000 years.  The first reported discoveries of these bodies were in the 1700s.

The bodies themselves are widely dated, from 8000 B.C. (Koelbjerg Woman of Denmark), to the medieval period. Most, however, date to the Iron Age (ca. 500 B.C.–A.D. 100). During this period, bogs were sacred to the people living there, who used them for religious rituals, such as dedications, offerings, and sacrifices.


Most are fragmented, some consisting of just a few bones or body parts. Few are nearly intact, perhaps 20 in the world. Historically the found bodies were not well cared for, damaged during extraction, left to rot in improperly controlled museum storage, or worse.

Those bodies which did survive, though, are remarkable and fascinating.  These bodies have skin and hair and are so well preserved they could have died recently. Perhaps it is because they appear to be so close to life that we give them names, such as Lindow Man, Tollund Man, and Yde Girl.


Tollund Man, of Denmark

People cutting peat have generally been the discoverers of the bodies in the bogs. However, now that machinery has taken over this work, new discoveries are rare. The machines destroy the remains as the peat is quickly removed. Research on bog bodies now focuses on learning all that can be learned from the bog bodies already found. New technologies have been helpful in that.  For example, damage to the bodies previously considered to be results of torture or violent execution were often, it is now understood, results of more natural causes such as the weight of the peat on the remains over millennia.



Gallagh Man

Back to Dublin, and my visit with the fellows under glass there.  The Irish bog bodies have some interesting features, and the story they tell is one of a possible struggle for dominance. Within an exhibit entitled Kingship and Sacrifice, these found fellows are given context, history, and a new theory as to who they were, and why they were there. (In the bog, that is, not in the museum.)


Old Croghan Man

The theory proposed, and there seems sufficient evidence to believe the argument here, is that Clonycavan Man and Old Croghan Man were contenders for, or defenders of, a throne, but were either defeated or removed from standing in another’s way. Their bodies were mutilated in such manners as to make them incapable of reigning according to the tradition of their time, and their bodies placed in the bog.

This all shines a very different light on just who the bog bodies we have collected over the centuries may have been. Perhaps not all innocent victims of religious right, but rather pawns in political intrigue.

Valentines Day: not necessarily the holiday you thought it was

What do Chaucer and werewolves have to do with Valentines Day?  After reading this, you may reconsider your feelings toward this holiday, or at the very least, discover some reasons it may not be such a bad thing to be without a Valentine this year.

We can begin tracking the origins of Valentines Day, vaguely, in ancient Egypt.  Men and women of the lower classes determined their marital partners by the drawing of lots.  This happened in mid-February, though its association with the holiday we know now is possibly no more than coincidental.  This does add a bit more solemnity to the phrase “luck of the draw,” however.

And now, on to werewolves:

In prehistoric societies, the wolf charmer was a fellow who had a particular affinity for communicating with wolves. A wolf whisperer, one could say.  As these ancient tribes developed agriculture and settled in small villages, it became necessary to have a person skilled in singing with the wolves in order to convince them not to attack the villages’ domesticated animals.  The wolf charmer  had the ability to howl with the wolves and lead them away from the livestock pens.  In some stories, the wolf charmer also had the power to transform himself into a wolf if he so desired.

These beliefs continued through history to our arrival in the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, amongst whom the wolf charmer was called the Lupicinus.

Lupus, meaning wolf, is not an original Latin word, but was borrowed from the Sabine dialect.  The Sabines were a nearby people, and in the very early days of Rome, when they found their male population far too heavily outnumbered their female, they raided the Sabines for their young women, who they then took back to Rome and married off to Roman citizens.

Luperca, the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome, was represented in a bronze statue, possibly of Etruscan origin, called the Capitoline Wolf, the presence of which was noted by such scholars as Livy, Pliny the Elder, and Cicero.


The significance of this wolf in the founding of Rome gave rise to secret fraternities known as the Luperci, who sacrificed goats at the entrances to their “wolves’ dens.”   Well, now that I’ve written this, they’re not so secret anymore, are they?  Difficult to hide a pile of smelly dead goats, so they were bound to be discovered at some point.

The Lupercalia festival, one of the most ancient of Roman holidays, occurred annually from February 13-15.  It was a perpetuation of the ancient blooding rites of the hunter, wherein the initiate is smeared with the blood of his first kill.  The sacrificial slaying of a goat represented the flocks that nourished early humans in their efforts to establish permanent dwelling places.  This was followed by the sacrifice of a dog, in honor of the watchful protector of a flock that would be the first one killed by attacking wolves.

The blood of the goat and the dog were mixed, and a knife was dipped into the blood and drawn across the foreheads of two noble-born children, possibly representative of Romulus and Remus.  Once the children had been “blooded,” their faces were washed in goat milk. As the children were being cleansed, they were expected to laugh, thereby demonstrating their lack of fear of blood and their acknowledgment that they had received the magic of protection against wolves and wolfmen.

The god Lupercus, represented by a wolf, inspired men to behave as werewolves during the festival.  Early in history, these werewolves chased down innocent victims and ate them, tearing off bites of the flesh with their teeth.  In later years, as the Romans and their practices gained sophistication, their bloodlust was satisfied in a slightly more acceptable fashion.  The men were drunk, and naked, and young women would line up for the men to flog them with leather thongs cut from the animals they had just slain. They believed this would make them fertile.  This idea stemmed from earlier practices of beating the fields to encourage crop success.

The festival also included a matchmaking lottery, similar to that of ancient Egypt, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar.  The man and woman would then be coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.  So, ladies, if you fancy being publicly flogged by a naked drunk guy, who then draws your name from a jar, thus winning your sexual services for the weekend…perhaps this is indeed your kind of holiday.

Moving forward a bit in time to the third century; the Roman Empire was ruled by Emperor Claudius II Gothicus.  He was nicknamed Claudius the Cruel for his merciless tactics, which must have been considerable for him to stand out in the crowd amongst Roman rulers.  The Roman Empire was, in this period, experiencing massive turmoil.  The Empire was divided into three competing factions, and the threat of invasion came from all sides, and

Claudius was struggling to fill his military ranks.  He decided that recruitment was down because Roman soldiers were unwilling to leave their wives and families for such long periods.  His solution was to outlaw marriage in Rome.  You can imagine how well this went over amongst the citizens.

Hope arrived in the name of a Christian priest called Valentine.  Recognizing the injustice of Claudius’ decree, Valentine began conducting secret marriages for Roman soldiers.  When Claudius discovered the secret ceremonies, he ordered Valentine’s execution.  As Valentine was awaiting execution, tradition has it that he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter.  It was unfortunately a short romance, as in 269 Valentine was clubbed to death and then beheaded by Roman executioners.  Father Valentine, champion of sweethearts, was named a martyr by the Church, because he gave up his life to perform the sacrament of marriage.  When the Church gained power in the Roman Empire, the Holy See quickly made him a saint.

Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, but was outlawed—as it was deemed “un-Christian”–at the end of the 5th century.  This was the same era in which Pope Gelasius I, in declaring February 14 St. Valentine’s Day, combined it with the celebration of Lupercalia, in order to replace pagan ritual with Christian, as had been done with such holidays as Easter and Christmas.

The early Church fathers were quite aware of the popularity of a vast number of heathen gods and goddesses, as well as the dates of observation of pagan festivals, so they made a point of replacing as many of the deities and the holidays as possible with ecclesiastical saints and feast days.  Mid-February had an ancient history of being devoted to acts of love of a far more passionate and lusty nature than the Church was willing to bless, and the bishops moved as speedily as possible to claim mid-February as belonging to Saint Valentine.  One can easily see why the early Church fathers much preferred the union of man and woman to be smiled upon by St. Valentine, rather than the leering wolf god Lupercus.  St. Valentine’s Day was celebrating the same general concept: that of fertility and love, and so it became Lupercalia with its clothes put back on.

By the Middle Ages, Valentine was among the favorite saints in England and France, popular for his romantic and heroic story.  Among the peasantry, the customs surrounding Saint Valentine appear to have roots in the traditions of ancient Egypt and Rome.  On the evening before Valentine’s Day, young men and women would gather in the village and draw names by chance.  The matches would be sweethearts for the year.  Clearly, this residually Lupercalian method of celebrating St. Valentine led to circumstances that encouraged relationships of a more lasting nature, presided over by the local priest. Among the upper classes, where arranged marriages were of greater importance to the continued success of the landed gentry and aristocracy, this practice was a dangerous prospect.  Instead, upper class families allowed their children to draw names at highly supervised holiday parties, and be chaperoned “sweethearts” for the length of the event, and no further, thus protecting the noble family lines and the future of the families.

Rarely does a day go by I don’t blame Chaucegeoffrey-chaucer-drawing1-e1329413408492r for something, and this is no exception.  Geoffrey Chaucer, medieval English poet, is known to have taken liberties with history, often placing his characters into fictionalized historical contexts, which he then presented to his readers as fact.  There are no records of courtly, romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day in the medieval era before Chaucer wrote a poem around the year 1382, in celebration of the engagement of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia.  In the poem, “Parliament of Fowles,” he makes the assertion that Valentine’s Day is a special day of romantic celebration for lovers, with the exchanging of notes and gifts.  The poem refers to February 14 as the day birds and humans find their mates.  It was only after this poem received widespread fame that Valentine’s Day became the holiday we recognize today.  Yes, Chaucer invented Valentine’s Day.  It’s his fault.

Side note: Here are links to the book of past posts from Chaucer’s blog and his current twitter for your perusal.  Your love life may depend on it.

Valentine greetings, therefore, were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written valentines didn’t begin to appear until after 1400.  The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.  (It is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library.)  Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.

By the 1750s, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by the 1850s, Valentine’s Day cards were being manufactured and sold commercially in England, and the custom of observing the holiday with cards to one’s sweetheart became popular in the United States in the 1860s, around the time of the American Civil War.

By 1900, printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology.  Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings.   Today, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year.

And finally, a few facts about the fellow who started the whole mess: Valentine.  The saint we celebrate on Valentine’s Day is known officially as St. Valentine of Rome, in order to differentiate him from the dozen or so other Valentines on the list of saints.  Because “Valentinus”—from the Latin word for worthy, strong or powerful—was a popular name between the second and eighth centuries, there were bound to be a few martyrs with that name, and indeed, there are about a dozen Valentines (or some variation thereof) on the official Roman Catholic roster of saints.  There was even a Pope Valentine, though all we really know about him is that he served a mere 40 days around A.D. 827.


Saints don’t get to lounge about much in the afterlife, and Valentine is no exception.  St. Valentine has a wide-ranging assortment of spiritual responsibilities, to include being the patron saint of beekeepers and travelers, and sufferers of epilepsy and the plague.  All of this on top of his duties to look after engaged couples and happy marriages.

stvalentinesskullIf you happen to be in need of his services, you can find Valentine’s skull on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome.  (It’s cleverly displayed in a little gold television-shaped reliquary, with a sticky note on his forehead identifying him.  I think he looks rather fetching.)  Excavations in the early 1800s in a catacomb nearby unearthed his skeletal remains, and as is customary in the Catholic Church, bits and pieces of Saint Valentine have been shipped about to reliquaries around the world.  You can find parts of Valentine in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Scotland, England, and France.

Today, of course, we have great commercial enterprises focused on St. Valentine’s Day, insisting that folks buy their sweethearts a box of candy, a dozen roses, a diamond ring or necklace, or at least a five-dollar card.  This is all Chaucer’s doing, which makes me wonder why more florists aren’t named after him.

As you stand in line to buy your roses this February 14, remember that it all began with a deranged wolfman smeared in blood, chasing down women with a leather strap.

Feel free to celebrate that as you see fit.

Is the Holy Grail in Wales?

I decided my career path whilst sitting in a theatre with my dad. I think I was 9.  I have always had a fascination with inter-war adventure films, and so we were watching Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  As Harrison Ford raced through the jungle with an artifact under his arm, being pursued by armed thugs, I turned to my dad and said that was what I wanted to do. My dad said, ‘Okay.’  That’s how it was with him; he never told me I couldn’t do something, or that it was impossible.

My current research is focused on formerly monastic lands, particularly those belonging at one point to Strata Florida Abbey in Wales.  Last year I stumbled across a reference to a relic once held there, which has been called the Holy Grail.  This immediately fascinated me.

So, the story of the Strata Florida Grail, or Nanteos Cup, is as follows:

During the Dissolution of the Monasteries at the hands of Henry VIII in the 1530s, supposedly a small number of monks from Strata Florida slipped away from the king’s men in the dark of night with this relic, to arrive at the door of a local lord, at a great house called Nanteos, seeking refuge.

It has been said that this cup was the actual Holy Grail.

It has also been said that the cup possesses healing powers, and that those who drank from it would be cured of their ailments.  Apparently they also chewed bits off and swallowed them, hoping for prolonged healing.  There is not much left of the mighty Cup these days.


Is it really the Holy Grail?

The medieval world was awash in relics thought to hold supernatural means of healing the ill.  Some relics were bones of saints or martyrs, and some were items like the shroud of Turin, powerful for having been in contact with the aforementioned religious person.  Believers, or pilgrims, would travel great distances to look upon or touch these relics, to pay homage to the items or in hopes of relief from their sicknesses.  Of course the popularity of the pilgrimages led to the miraculous discovery of yet more relics, items with magical properties and dubious provenance, which increased pilgrimage traffic yet more.  Visitors purchased souvenirs and badges, churches were constructed to accommodate the throngs of people passing through to view their sacred items, and local economies depended heavily on the tourist trade, so were therefore keen to have a good relic that would draw a steady crowd.  The Knights Hospitaller were often established on pilgrim routes to offer safe places for weary travelers to rest. (This was true for the case of Strata Florida Abbey, which was a popular stop on the pilgrim routes.  The Hospitallers had a nearby estate along that route to house pilgrims on their way.)

The Nanteos Cup remains in the possession of descendants of that sixteenth century lord whose door the monks ran to in desperation as their abbey was ransacked.  It is currently on display at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, where I happened to be doing some research just over a week ago.


Determining whether the Nanteos Cup really is, or is not, the Holy Grail is not part of my research.  I don’t keep a Grail diary as the elder Doctor Jones did, though I do in fact have a small notebook I carry around and fill with…notes.  And some of them are indeed about the Cup.  Some day it might be important.  If it’s good enough for Sean Connery, it’s good enough for me.


So, Grail seekers, check out Monty Python,  Alfred Lord Tennyson, and by all means, check out the National Library of Wales. I spend a lot of time there, and it’s an amazing facility.