The Witch of East Somerton

By JB Ladbrooke, from ‘Ladbrookes views of the churches in the county of Norfolk’ (found here)

This is a fun one. I’ve recently learned from this Atlas Obscura post about the ruined Norfolk church at East Somerton village. As local tradition goes, the tall oak tree growing in the middle of the nave sprouted magically from the wooden leg of a witch that was buried there. Yes, I know, pretty silly, but I couldn’t help look into this anyway. I was initially curious as to how old this legend really was and ended up looking at the whole thing. Other than the physical impossibility of a wooden leg becoming a tree of course; I think we can take that as read. Disclaimer; this is not intended as a dig at Atlas Obscura; I am a fan of the site and have worked with them a couple of times. They are careful to call it a ‘legend’ and also use the phrases ‘said to be’, ‘said to have’ and ‘it’s believed’. 

The first thing to cover is what this 13th-15th century building actually is. It’s described as both a church and a chapel, and several sources state that it used to be a church before becoming a chapel for the residents and workers of the nearby Burnley Hall. In fact, the Hall wasn’t even built until 1710, by which time the chapel was already derelict, and it seems that this is a misunderstanding of what a ‘chapel’ in this context actually is. East Somerton (dedicated to St Mary but not dubbed ‘St Mary’s’) was always technically a satellite church or ‘chapel of ease’, dependent upon the nearby Holy Trinity church at Winterton, which was the actual parish church from the beginning (see here and here). So, the East Somerton site is still a ‘church’ in terms of historic purpose and function, but was never actually dubbed ‘St Mary’s Church’ (‘Chapel of St. Mary’ seems to be the correct name) nor was it ever East Somerton’s parish church per se. All of this confused me during research (some sources can be read as implying both a church and a chapel in the village), so I thought I’d try to clear it up for others. 

I then looked at when the chapel was actually abandoned and when it became a ruin, in case these dates didn’t line up with the witch narrative. However, most sources (including Heritage Gateway, referencing Batcock’s ‘The Ruined and Disused Churches of Norfolk’, available here) do state that it was already in ruins by the late 17th century. There are later references to the chapel (for example these and from the 1760s), but these persist until at least as late as 1821, by which time we know for sure the chapel was ruined. These references are clearly nominal, referring to the fact that the chapel site and its former function were still in theory part of the rectory overall. So I am quite content to say that it was indeed ruined by the end of the 17th century (meaning that a tree could have started growing there). Certainly, by 1781 the building had been ‘made use of as a barn’ and had been ‘in ruins many years’ (from ‘The History of Norfolk’, p. 46). However, there is no sign of a tree in 1822 in J.B. Ladbrooke’s lithograph of the site (see above and linked here). As an aside, the place being ruined and roofless by that time is on the face of it at odds with its second life as a barn. Perhaps it fell into greater disrepair in the meantime, or perhaps the roof was partly intact. Or maybe landowner just wasn’t that fussy and used it for storage despite its ruined state. Anyway, there’s also no mention of a tree in the 1824 book ‘Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen’; just of the undergrowth that we see in the contemporary artwork. It’s not until 1875 that we read in the ‘Post office directory of the Norfolk counties’ (p. 445) of ‘a large tree growing in the midst’ of the ruins. 

Which brings me to the tree itself. If it was ‘large’ in 1875, could it have been seeded during the witch trial era? This could make the legend an old one, perhaps even based upon some actual historical event, and of course for believers in the paranormal, it would vindicate the whole story. Well, based upon the available evidence the tree is no more than 1.5 in trunk diameter (less than that, I suspect). That would equate to a 471 cm circumference which, divided by the 1.88cm growth rate for the average oak tree, gives an approximate age of 250 years. That would place the tree as a sapling in the mid-to-late 18th century and make it too young to fit the story. Witch trials were halted by the Witchcraft Act of 1735, operated under the new Enlightenment assumption that magic wasn’t real and so anyone claiming to practice it was a fraud. The last trial in England for actual witchcraft took place in 1716, by which time belief in such things was well on the slide (hence the new law, repealing the 1604 Act under which Mary Hicks and her daughter had been prosecuted and executed). This brings me to perhaps the biggest problem with the East Somerton witch tale; no convicted witch would have been buried in consecrated ground, much less in the nave of a church!  

The historical background to this story is also lacking. There’s the total lack of any evidence (online, at any rate) for any witch being tried or even suspected in this area. Most local stories about witches usually at least relate to a specific case; not so here. Then we have a lack of references even for the story itself; nothing any further back than this 1992 book. That in itself does not of course mean that the story isn’t an older oral tradition; it probably is. All we actually have is the story, which is likely a local legend that grew as the tree did, although it is unlikely to be even as old as the tree, given that the site was covered in other foliage earlier in the 19th century (and probably wasn’t noticeable until mid-century). I don’t think a tree growing inside the church is going to attract much attention as long as the place is overgrown, until such time as it becomes prominent. We know it’s at least 30 years old, and as the tree was large enough to be remarked upon in 1875, I suspect that the myth arose some time in the Victorian period (although it could of course be more recent). 

As for the ‘ghostly monks’ mentioned in the Atlas Obscura entry, I don’t know where that comes from, but I haven’t even seen that claimed anywhere else. That one debunks itself really, since East Monkton was never a priory, abbey, or monastery. 

Rosslyn Chapel (again)

It’s been a while, but my old nemesis Rosslyn Chapel, not to mention my actual nemesis Stuart Mitchell (who threatened to sue me my over my criticism of his made-up ‘code’) have made a (relatively) recent comeback in Susan Calman’s 2019 ‘Secret Scotland’ series, which I am just catching up with. Sadly, the production team made no effort to research the reality of the situation, and afforded Mitchell one last hurrah in episode 1 (Edinburgh) before he (unfortunately) passed away in 2018, not long after filming must have happened. Calman and the producers seem to swallow this without question. She even breaks down in tears after hearing the ‘Rosslyn Motet’. I really like her as a comedian and she’s an excellent presenter as well, but she is clearly something of a ‘believer’, going by her reaction to the ghost aspect of the same episode. I won’t rehash the Music of the Cubes nonsense (and trust me, it is total nonsense). If you want to catch up on that, there’s a whole series of old posts here; if you’re short on time, this was my original debunk. I also recommend Jeff Nisbet’s excellent article.

Instead, I want to address a much older claim; that the Chapel contains depictions of maize (American corn) and aloe, and therefore proves arcane or otherwise lost medieval knowledge of the Americas. It categorically does not. This BBC article absolutely nails it, so read that, but I will quote the most important bits below

“Dr Adrian Dyer, a professional botanist and husband of the Revd Janet Dyer, former Priest in Charge at Rosslyn Chapel, meticulously examined the botanical carvings in the Chapel…Dr Dyer found that there was no attempt to represent a species accurately: the ‘maize’ and ‘aloe’ carvings are almost certainly derived from stylized wooden patterns, whose resemblance to recognisable botanical forms is fortuitous.

Much the same conclusion was reached by archaeo-botanist Dr Brian Moffat, who also noted that the carvings of botanical forms are not naturalistic nor accurate. He found a highly stylised Arum Lily the most likely candidate for what has been identified as American maize.

As for the ‘aloes’, Dr Moffat points out that the consumer would never have seen the plant, only the sap which was used medicinally.”

There you are. Given the total lack of any other evidence for these plants in Europe prior to the mid-16th century, I would certainly accept the opinion of two qualified scientists over those who dreamed up this theory. Speaking of which, where did this one come from? There are two near-contemporary competing claims. The earliest reference seems (based upon this reference) to be plate 23 of Andrew Sinclair’s 1992 book ‘The Sword and the Grail: Of the Grail and the Templars and a True Discovery of America’. It is then independently made in 1996’s ‘The Hiram Key’ by infamous Rosslyn ‘scholars’ Knight and Lomas (2nd edition, 1998, p. 79). In this book Robert Lomas claims that Brydon had the revelation about the carvings in his company and quotes him supposedly verbatim. They also claim that Dyer’s wife agreed that the carvings represented aloe and maize (p. 302), despite Dyer’s own debunking of this. To be clear, Sinclair, Knight and Lomas were all card-carrying ‘alternative history’ types, alleging all sorts of far less plausible, yet far more bonkers ‘alternative facts’, perhaps the craziest of which is that the moon was built by humans (Knight). All three are proponents of the idea that Earl Henry Sinclair ‘discovered’ America before Columbus, hence being keen on the idea that the Chapel, which was founded by the Sinclair family, provides evidence for this within its carvings. Sinclair also claimed that the Holy Grail was secreted at Rosslyn. Brydon, archivist for the Commandery of St Clair (a chapter effectively) of the Grand Priory of the Knights Templar in Scotland, apparently agreed that the carvings represented aloe and maize. He doesn’t seem to have actually made this claim directly, only as quoted by Knight and Lomas, who don’t reference Sinclair and imply that the claim originates with Brydon. As a prominent Knight Templar and an advocate of attracting attention and funding to the Chapel, Brydon had a vested interest in tolerating this form of dubious history. The same is true of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, who continually walk a tightrope between actual and BS history due to their overarching remit to keep the visitors coming. This, no doubt, is why Trust Director Ian Gardner happily endorses the maize/aloe theory in the Secret Scotland programme. Oddly, their website can’t seem to make up its mind; one page uncritically accepts it, another (very similarly worded) page is much more circumspect, triggering Betteridge’s law of newspaper headlines (that if the claim is phrased as a question, the answer is always “no”). Yet another, an interview with a stonework conservator, falls into the “I’m not saying it’s aliens, but it’s aliens” trope, by denying that stone conservators take a view on such things, and then immediately siding with the believers. Finally, and rather insidiously, a quiz for children states outright that the carvings show maize and corn, and invite the reader to engage with the theory that the Chapel builders knew of these plants.

Tomb of Dracula 2: The Revenge

Snagov monastery (Wikimedia Commons)

Some years ago I debunked (as well as others) a ridiculous claim about a supposed tomb of the infamous medieval prince and nominal fictional vampire, Vlad III. In that post I commented that part of the reason Vlad couldn’t be buried in Naples was because he was known to be buried elsewhere; probably Snagov monastery. Well, it doesn’t change my prior conclusion that the Naples claim was total BS, but I was definitely off-base regarding Snagov. Atlas Obscura tells us that;

This solitary monastery may hold the remains of Vlad the Impaler (but probably not).”

I’d go one further; Vlad definitely isn’t at Snagov. This 2002 article (in Vol. 4 of the Journal of Dracula Studies), written by Constantin Rezachevici of the Nicolae Iorga Institute of History, explains that this claim is completely fabricated. The short version is that it is a totally invented tradition starting with a 17th century claim that Vlad founded the monastery – he didn’t – on top of which was layered an assumption that he must therefore have been buried there. The famous 1933 excavations that failed to find evidence of Vlad were carried out on the second church built on the site, well after his death. Rezachevici points to the various executed 16th and 17th century boyars buried at Snagov (which seems to have functioned as something of a mini Tower of London) as a likely reason why people started to speculate on a Vlad association, as well as a general tendency for monks to seek famous historical figures to associate their monasteries with in order to garner kudos and, perhaps, money for the upkeep of their ageing sites. It’s not so different to somewhere like Roslin Chapel, albeit the Church of Scotland definitely didn’t court the spurious associations that now bring thousands to the site who would not otherwise have brought their tourist money.

Now, the Rezachevici article also outlines the case for Vlad’s grave being at Comana, itself quite speculative but a stronger claim than Snagov, as there is good evidence for Vlad having that monastery built. However, no tomb or grave has been located there either. Rezachevici reports a grave “set in the proper place for a founder” that could be the one. He does not mention any details of the human remains or any efforts to search for Vlad or his grave, either in the original 1970s excavations or later on. All I could find online was a Facebook post by one of the authors of the book ‘Corpus Draculianum’, who have investigated the ’70s excavation reports and corresponded with the archaeologist responsible, and identified no likely candidates. Notably, no decapitation burials were allegedly found. I found the published report online here, and ran most of it through Google Translate. It details the many burials, which were mainly of monks and members of the local community. Considerable effort was made to identify individuals, and needless to say, Vlad was not one of them. No named individuals could be identified prior to the 17th century, meaning that he could in theory be there, however by the same token there is no sign of any higher status burials of Vlad’s era (whereas there are voivodes of later centuries) and no skeletons were found to be missing a head (see below). Nor is any skeletal trauma described (although perhaps detailed analysis was not carried out). Of course, when this work was carried out there was no over claim that Vlad III’s remains might be there, but the possibility must have occurred, and in any case, as noted, the archaeologist involved has since been asked about this and has confirmed a lack of any evidence. The Comana claim seems to be Rezachevici’s (pet?) theory in particular, with only circumstantial evidence to support it.

Now, I mentioned the fact that Dracula had been decapitated; this is worth digging into in itself; the more bits he ended up in, the more resting places he might have, and the lower the chances of there even being a grave for him; there is certainly no extant tomb. According to Cazacu (2017, p. 180), Vlad’s body was ‘cut to pieces’, which some have taken to mean literally dismembered, so I decided to try to verify which bits he’s actually missing. I couldn’t get hold of the primary source here (Leonardo Botta), but even if he did say ‘cut to pieces’, this is frequently used in the figurative sense. Defeated enemies of nobles might be quartered and their bits sent to different cities (like William Wallace, famously) but here the evidence for dismemberment is lacking. On the other hand the decapitation is attested by more than one source. M.J. Trow’s English translation from Jakob Unrest’s 1499 Austrian Chronicle says;

“Dracula was killed with great cunning, because the Turks wished to avenge the enmity which he had borne against them for so long and also the great damages inflicted upon them. They hired a Turk as one of his servants with the mission of killing him while he served him. The Turk was apparently instructed to attack Dracula from the back. He was then to cut off his head and bring it back on horseback to the sultan.”
-M.J. Trow, ‘A Brief History of Vampires’ (digital edition)

Antonius Bonfinius, (Italian) Hungarian court historian for Matthias Corvinus, in his ‘Rerum Ungaricarum Decades‘, compiled between one and two decades of Vlad’s death, reports;

“In Turcico demum bello cesus, caput ad Maumethem dono missum.”
“Beaten in war with the Turkish, [Dracula’s] head was sent to Mehmet.”

We will likely never know what happened to Dracula’s remains, but he’s not in Naples, he’s not at Snagov, and he probably isn’t at Comana either. Wherever Dracula is, he’s likely still in two bits; his head somewhere in Turkey and the rest somewhere in Romania.

Excalibur found? No, obviously not.

More ‘among’ than ‘in’…

Very shortly after I posted my ‘sword in the stone’ article (see my last post), the story broke of another medieval (this one a ‘hand-and-a-half’ or ‘bastard’) sword supposedly embedded in stone – and also in a lake. Of course the media couldn’t resist the obvious parallels to two Arthurian swords (or one, depending which version of the myth you prefer) – the ‘Sword in the Stone’ and Excalibur. My title is taken from last week’s Fox News version of the story. Well, not the second bit. Unfortunate click-bait for what is actually a very interesting find relating to the very well documented practice of, to paraphrase Monty Python, ‘distributing swords’ among bodies of water. This is somewhat legitimate; more so than Pryor’s Bronze Age metallurgy-inspired origin for the sword in the stone. Of course the media did not make the actual connection here. The practice of depositing swords into lakes and rivers was very long-standing and lasted well into the medieval period (e.g. this one). We don’t quite know what this practice was about, but it was definitely a meme of sorts; there are so many cases of it for so long and in so many different watery places that there can be no single pragmatic reason. It’s widely accepted as a ‘ritual’ practice, probably an offering of sorts, originally to a deity, later perhaps to Christian saints. Therefore it’s at least plausible that the 13th century ‘Post-Vulgate’ era Arthurian tales (which are the first appearance of Excalibur as a lake-based sword) could have been influenced by this.

So, not entirely unconnected to Arthurian mythology, but actually part of a once common ritual practice. The ‘lake’ bit might just have a common origin with Excalibur, but the ‘in the stone’ bit is a total red herring. As you can see from the video on The Sun version of the story, the sword actually fell between two large rocks, later becoming somewhat embedded in an accretion of small rocks, silt, and sand formed over centuries. Not even the point is actually stuck in stone – the image of it in situ (and the actual recovered sword) shows that a good foot or more of the blade is missing; the broken distal end of the weapon was just resting against a rock, in a slight crevice depression, with a buildup of accretion around it. The story is interesting enough that it shouldn’t really need Arthur to sell it; it’s not every day that we find new medieval swords – but it’s the easy ‘hook’ I guess.

The Bronze Sword in the Stone?

Not the stone you’re looking for… Molds for bronze swords and other items, from the Nordheimer Hohl, Neckargartach, Stadt Heilbronn, c. 800 BC, Lettenhohl sandstone – Landesmuseum Württemberg – Stuttgart, Germany. Wikimedia/Daderot


I’ve been catching up on Arthurian legend/history recently, and have twice come across the interesting suggestion that the “sword in the stone” could have originated as an idea from the Bronze Age practice of casting a sword in a stone mould. Interesting, but ridiculous. This idea seems to originate with Francis Pryor, an eminent archaeologist of prehistory (not, in fact, the Migration Period/Dark Ages), who raises it in his ‘Britain A.D.’ series, and again in a Time Team special


The biggest issue here is one of time; 1,200 years (minimum) to be precise. The casting of bronze swords ceased around 600 BCE in Europe. Yet the story of the sword in the stone doesn’t appear until Robert de Boron’s poem Merlin, written circa 1190-1210 CE. This is the relevant section, from a later (C15th) Middle English translation;


“Some of the peple yede oute of the cherche where ther was a voyde place. And whan they com oute of the cherche, thei sawgh it gan dawe and clere, and saugh before the cherche dore a grete ston foure square, and ne knewe of what ston it was — but some seide it was marble. And above, in the myddill place of this ston, ther stode a styth of iren that was largely half a fote of height. And thourgh this stithi was a swerde ficchid into the ston.

Whan the gode man that sange masse herde this, he toke haly water and caste upon the stith. And the archebisshop lowted to the swerde and sawgh letteres of golde in the stiel. And he redde the letteres that seiden, “Who taketh this swerde out of this ston sholde be kynge by the eleccion of Jhesu Criste.”


Before this story there is no prior tradition of swords in stones in folklore or history that would imply any continuity at all between the practice of casting bronze swords and this late 12th/early 13th century story. As the Bronze Age is literally prehistoric, there could be no written tradition of cast bronze or copper swords, and we have no dated examples from the historical era. There is a tangential link to swordmaking insofar as the sword in the poem/story was driven through a blacksmith’s anvil and *then* into a hard stone (a “perron” or mounting block), but anvils (and indeed blacksmithing) have nothing to do with the making of bronze swords. If anything this hurts Pryor’s hypothesis because the sword isn’t just in a stone – it’s in an iron anvil. If de Boron was trying to evoke ancient swordsmithing, why introduce that element?

There is also the point that bronze swords were also cast in sand or clay moulds; it was much easier to press an existing sword into these materials to create a disposable mould than to laboriously chisel the correct shape out of stone. Stone sword moulds (which had the advantage of being reusable) are not common (and of course clay and sand are unlikely to survive), and were used early in the (pre)history of bronze swordmaking (see Wileman, 2014, p.109). So the ‘meme’ of swords emerging from stone moulds is by no means secure, and would have to have to survived even longer than the end of the Bronze Age to the early 12th century. Even if this knowledge had somehow survived (let’s say a mould had been dug up somewhere or found re-used in a wall or something), I also have to question the likelihood of a medieval poet coming across such arcane and ancient knowledge. Stone moulds were used to make metal objects until the 18th century, but never iron or metal swords. At best, for this hypothesis to work we would have to assume that de Boron was inspired to imagine a sword stuck in a stone by the mistaken belief that swords were cast rather than forged, or simply by having seen another metal object being cast. Even then, we have zero evidence of this, and may as well speculate (off the top of my head) that Tony Scott was inspired to direct the film ‘Top Gun’ because he had a toy helicopter as a child. It has a chance of being true, probably isn’t, and adds nothing to our understanding of the story. Pryor’s suggestion might carry more weight if we were talking about an early Welsh folkloric story of Arthur that might reflect some oral tradition, or even the late 1st Century pseudohistories that fleshed out the King Arthur that we know today. But here we know that de Boron came up with the idea in the process of writing a fictional story based upon those prior tales. Perhaps Pryor did not realise that the sword in the stone was part of the French romantic Arthurian tradition and not any kind of traditional British version. Therefore, not only is the idea that a Medieval author somehow possessed knowledge of prehistoric swordmaking implausible, it isn’t even necessary to explain a wholly fictional aspect of the lore.


This sort of retrofitting of the evidence is a constant theme in the never-ending quest by many to historicise Arthur (who very likely never existed by the way – a post for another day perhaps). To quote the brilliant Bad Archaeology blog:


“It starts with an assumption that there was a Camelot to be found and that there was an Arthur to hold court there, then goes out to find the evidence. Without the later stories of ‘King’ Arthur, there is nothing in the archaeology of these places that would lead us to postulate the existence of such a character. We bring our later preconceptions to bear on the interpretation of the data, which is definitely Bad Archaeology.”


In closing, I should point out that there is a much more likely historical inspiration for the medieval sword in the stone. It’s a medieval sword. In a stone. I speak of the sword of Saint Galgano, which actually predates the fictional Arthurian version both as an extant (and genuine) artefact and as an historically attested incident (by which I mean it was known prior to de Boron putting pen to parchment). As this academic article suggests, it’s possible that de Boron heard of this sword and stone and used that as his inspiration. This is still somewhat speculative, but far more likely than Pryor’s bronze sword claim which, as far as I can tell, has never been proposed in a scholarly fashion at all. 

Alms and Fingers: BS History on YouTube

‘A Family of Three at Tea’ by Richard Collins. British, oils, ca. 1727


I watch (or, being ridiculously busy these days, listen to) a lot of YouTube videos and really appreciate some of the historical channels like ‘Shadiversity’, which covers medieval history. They are a great introduction to the subject for the layperson and especially for visual learners, people with limited time and/or interest. The danger of them is exactly that of traditional TV documentaries – that the viewer assumes that the content is 100% factual and authoritative. Just like TV, YouTubers lack the time and often the means (often the motivation, it has to be said) to be academically rigorous about their ‘content’, which is entertainment first and foremost, not to mention a source of income (whether directly from YouTube monetisation or indirectly by crowdsourced funding).

For example, a recent video from Shad (who does normally try hard with his historical accuracy) included two very questionable claims, both from Abbey Medieval Festival organiser Edith Cuffe.


Claim 1: ‘Alms to the poor’ originates with the donation of used trenchers

Verdict: BS

Cuffe describes the medieval practice of donating the stale bread plates used at the banquet table, known as ‘trenchers’, to the poor, stating ‘…giving alms to the poor…that’s where that saying comes from’.

This is just not true and doesn’t even try to explain the word ‘alms’, what it meant in the wider sense, or where it came from. ‘Alms’ is actually ancient, from ancient Greek via Latin, and from very early on described any charitable gift to the poor, whether money, clothing, food or drink. This is like claiming that the concept of ‘drinking’ originates with alcoholic beverages – the idea of drinking obviously pre-dated that of the alcoholic drink, and the same logical failure applies here. Naturally I wanted to work out where this mistake originated, and as far as I can tell this isn’t something that is widely claimed. I suspect that Ms Cuffe simply misspoke or perhaps has become confused over this point. Trenchers really were given to the poor, although the sources seem to be limited. The main one (and I am no expert here either) seems to be ‘A Fifteenth Century Courtesy Book’ (British Library manuscript ‘Additional’ no. 37969). 

This explains that between courses various food and drink including (but not limited to) used trenchers would be collected along with an unused trencher and a whole loaf of bread in the ‘almes dyshe’ and then taken to be given to the poor. However, this was not some special dish just for leftover food – an alms dish was just a receptacle for any charitable donation – money, food, drink, or other. Incidentally, have a go at reading that Middle English source – it’s fascinating and great fun when you get into the swing of it. 15th century English is readily understood with a bit of effort, once you realise that words are spelled how they are pronounced (so this has changed somewhat over time), there’s an additional letter, the *Thorn* (looks like a ‘p’) which was a ‘th’ sound – and of course some of the vocabulary is a bit tricky, but easily Googled. For example, the ‘sure howse’ that the alms dish was taken to was a church, chapel, or other religious building (specifically, ‘church’ was ‘chirche’). There was an actual church job role of ‘almoner’ (mentioned in the same MS), the official receiver and distributor of alms – again, much of which was simply money – it was not just a medieval food bank per se (although it did partly perform that role).


Claim 2: The modern ‘pinky in the air’ was invented for the medieval dinner table

Verdict: BS

The other piece of ‘Medieval Misconception’ in the video (again given by Cuffe) is the idea that the present-day custom (popularised in the 19th century) of holding one’s little (pinky) finger out to one side/in the air comes from the medieval practice of reserving certain fingers for picking up spices at the dinner table. This seems to originate with Dr Madeleine Pelner Cosman of the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, City College of New York, who made the same claim several times in non-academic level publications, e.g. from her 1981 ‘Medieval Holidays and Festivals: A Calendar of Celebrations’ (p.7):

‘Even today many people keep a pinky finger extended when holding a tea or coffee cup. Why? Because polite banquet rules imitate the medieval manner of keeping particular fingers free of sauces, the spice fingers.’

All subsequent references seem to come from Cosman’s claims. Unfortunately Cosman seems to assume, without evidence, that the practice of reserving the little finger for tasting spices somehow has a direct line of tradition to the modern table etiquette idea of holding out the little finger. Rather like ‘archer’s salute’, this is a massive leap from a single source that vaguely sounds like something that’s done later on in history; *much* later on in history. Without wishing to be uncharitable, Cosman was definitely not a medieval scholar. None of her degrees were in a history subject, never mind medieval history, and her actual academic career was in comparative and English Literature. Her medieval expertise was essentially that of a re-enactor (not a bad thing in itself of course) running a living history group and being involved in the US ‘Renaissance Fair’ pastime. This makes her logical leap all the more questionable and means that her claims have never been challenged by credentialled medieval scholars.

In all, this is another case of an academic straying out of their area of expertise, and at the same time, of the re-enactment community inventing historical facts and reinforcing them through repetition and also publication. As for where the little finger in the air really comes from, it’s hard to say for sure but the explanation that it arose in the 18th century with the first teacups, which were small and lacked handles. Grasping one of these with thumb and forefinger/middle finger encouraged the little finger to be held out to one side, and this certainly became the fashionable way to do it. The book ‘Forgotten Elegance’ by Wendell and Wes Schollander (2002) refers to an artistic depiction of 1740 (actually earlier, see my image above) that shows different ways of holding a teacup including one with the little finger extended. In any case, by the late Victorian period the extended little finger had become passé and was used by the upper classes to differentiate themselves from lower class tea drinkers who persisted in its use (see for example Frederick Gordon Row, ‘The Victorian Child’, 1959, p.53). The rigorous thing to do would be to say that we don’t really know – it was just a fashion in etiquette. But it almost certainly doesn’t come from 15th century table practicalities.

So, as elsewhere, don’t believe everything you hear on YouTube…

The Mummies of St Michan’s – the ‘Crusader’, the ‘Nun’ and the ‘Thief’…

1 - C19th 1888
The vault in 1888…

2 - C20th
…in the early 20th century…?

3 - 21st
…and in the present day.


Myth: the mummies of St Michan’s are a crusader, a thief, and a nun who died aged over 100

Reality: the ‘crusader’ is an anonymous 3-400 year-old Irishman, the thief might have been a murderer but could be neither of those, and there probably was a nun, but we don’t know which body is her – if any!


I have been meaning to write something about the mummies of St Michan’s church for years now, and this recent sad tale of head theft is a good reason to do it now, not least because of the disgustingly racist comments that have sprung up about it. Just as I was going to (word)press, the head and one of the loose skulls from the vault had been recovered, although of course the damage to the corpse where it has been torn/cut off is permanent. by the logic of the rabid internet loons, apparently the only possible culprit for the desecration of a ‘crusader’ must be a Muslim immigrant or a ‘liberal’. The BBC article does a decent job of relating the break-in and desecration of the corpse, but makes no mention of the important fact that the ‘Crusader’ is definitely not one. A crusader I mean. It’s definitely a corpse. The crypt at St Michan’s has been home to unusually well-preserved (naturally mummified) corpses for some time, with particular attention in modern times to three mummies, dubbed ‘the thief’ (the very tall body in the middle, whose right hand and both feet are missing), ‘the nun’ (currently said to be the left of the three in the middle of the vault) and yes, ‘the crusader’ (arranged transversely behind her, against the wall). Don’t ask me why the other exposed mummy on the right doesn’t have a special identity. There’s a weird tradition that visitors should touch the hand of the ‘crusader’ for good luck. I don’t believe in superstition, but I touched him anyway. After all, how often do you get actively encouraged to touch dead people?


Peter Somerville-Large pegged the ‘crusader’ as a ‘seventeenth century Dubliner’ in ‘Dublin, the Fair City’ (1996) and I am convinced that he was right. The bodies in the vault are at most 400 years old, but after only a century or so, local people thought that they must be much older. Sir Arthur Vicars had this figured this out 1888 in his ‘An account of the antiseptic vaults beneath S. Michan’s Church, Dublin, : read at the annual meeting of the Royal Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, at Leamington’ (1888, p.79-82):


‘This chamber contains altogether ten coffins, two on the left, four on the right, and four in the centre without lids. The centre one contains the body of a lady brought here about the year 1790. All these have once been covered with black velvet, some of which still hangs on the sides in strips. It is a popularly received idea that these bodies are several hundred years old, and people go even so far as to say that the body of a man with his legs crossed in the coffin nearest the wall is a crusader. The absurdity of this wild notion is obvious when we look at the coffins, which we have reasons for thinking are the original ones in which the bodies were first placed. They are of the ordinary shape of the present day, of which I believe I am correct in stating one of the earliest examples known is that of Lancelot, Bishop of Winchester, buried in 1626 in S. Saviour’s, Southwark, whose coffin was discovered in 1830 (Gent’s Mag., Aug., 1830, p. 171). Everyone knows now that the cross-legged crusader theory is long since exploded. There is not much to guide one in guessing the date of the coffins in S. Michan’s, but I should scarcely think that there are any prior in date to about the end of the seventeenth century, if indeed so early ; the greater number are much later than that. We were informed by the sexton that in another of the vaults, some years ago, he saw ” E. Rook, 1690,” marked in nails on the lid of a coffin of a child. The lock of this vault being out of order we were unable to visit it, though I have since had this statement corroborated by another ; but whether or not my informants mistook the 1790 for 1690 will, however, never be ascertained, for the coffin in question has since fallen to pieces. I don’t remember, however, having seen any dates on my previous visits. At all events, whatever their dates may be, the coffins must certainly have been here many years, and quite long enough to set people wondering how it is that time and the usual process of decay seem to have had no effect on them.’


Note that the ‘nun’ was, in 1888, claimed as the ‘middle’ corpse, not the one on the left. This must surely be a mistake, because the middle mummy is very clearly extremely tall and physically robust – one of two men out of the four mummies. The present building is no older than perhaps 1750, but the church itself is older. It was founded in 1095, making the crusader story plausible on the face of it, but only assuming that there were older vaults of some kind there previously such that the body could have been disinterred and reinterred in the new vaults. Which seems unlikely. Irish author Leon Ó Broin in his ‘Miss Crookshank agus Coirp Eile’ (1951) came to the conclusion that St Michan’s crypt was first opened in 1686, and that the oldest of the three corpses dated from 1780. My research suggests that interments actually started from 1641 onwards. ‘A story of Dublin: the people and events that shaped the city’ (John McCormack, 2000) mentions the repair and re-use of the vaults below the church circa the arrival of Thomas Wentworth in 1633. The earliest written accounts (there is another, also from 1822, in the New Monthly Magazine) make no mention of a ‘crusader’ or knight, so it seems that particular legend emerged at some point between 1822 and 1888:


‘Among these remnants of humanity, for instance, there is the body of a pious gentlewoman, who, while she continued above ground, shunned the eyes of men in the recesses of a convent. But the veil of death has not been respected. She stands the very first on the sexton’s list of posthumous rarities, and one of the most valuable appendages of his office. She is his buried treasure. Her sapless cheeks yield him a larger rent than some acres of arable land ; and what is worse, now that she cannot repel the imputation, he calls her to her face ” the Old Nun.” In point of fact, I understood that her age was one hundred and eleven, not

including the forty years that have elapsed since her second burial in St. Michan’s. Death, as has been often observed, is a thorough Radical, and levels all distinctions. It is so in this place. Beside the Nun there sleeps, not a venerable abbess, or timid novice, or meek and holy friar, but an athletic young felon of the 17th century, who had shed a brother’s, blood, and was sentenced for the offence to the close custody of St. Michan’s vaults. This was about one hundred and thirty years ago. The offender belonged to a family of some consideration, which accounts for his being found in such respectable society.


-(‘The Vaults of St. Michan’s’ in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal Vol.5, p.395)


This account matches up very well date-wise; the oldest of the displayed bodies (whether or not the ‘felon’ is one of those still displayed) being from c.1710. If we assume that the ‘nun’ was correctly identified as either the left or right hand female body in 1822, this raises the fascinating possibility that the ‘thief’ in the middle may indeed be a criminal; but a murderer, not a thief. In any event, this story was apparently forgotten by 1888, and it’s perhaps less credible that this knowledge would have persisted after 130 years. Still, there’s potential for some consistency around the story here, if indeed the 1888 account is in error – it does seem to be at odds in this respect. The other accounts can be reconciled as the crusader being the one at the back, the criminal in the middle, and the nun next to him (most likely his left). Also mentioned in 1822 are the bodies of John and Henry Sheares, executed for their part in the 1798 Rising (only 16 years earlier than this source). These two were still being shown to visitors in 1888 and, I believe, until shortly before I visited in 2009. They now reside in a different vault, having been moved to the vault nearest the entrance in the 1850s.


The only constant in all of the accounts is the ‘nun’, the titular ‘Miss Crookshanks’ of Ó Broin’s book. Note that I haven’t actually been able to read this, because it’s in Irish, but from comments elsewhere and judiciously translated Google Books snippets, it seems that Ó Broin did in fact debunk the existence of a nun or any woman of this name. But let’s give the benefit of the doubt and see what else we can say. One might think that this woman having been interred only 40 years before the anonymous 1822 account above, that we could be sure of her identification as a 111-year-old nun called Crookshank. Wright (1825) reinforces this;


‘In one vault is shown the remains of a nun, who died at the advanced age of 111 : the body has now been 30 years in this mansion of death, and although there is scarcely a remnant of the coffin, is as completely preserved, with the exception of the hair, as if it had been embalmed. In the same vault are to be seen the bodies of two Roman Catholic clergymen, which have been 50 years deposited here, even more perfect than the nun.’

-’An historical guide to the city of Dublin’ by George Newenham Wright (p.62).


This puts the nun/Crookshank’s approximate year of death at 1795. As to the clergymen mentioned, I have no idea whether any of the remains in the current vault might be these men, or even if that ID was correct at the time. Richard Robert Madden’s 1842 account of Miss Crookshank suggests a much older corpse, relocated twice; first from her own tomb (presumably also within the specially preservative vaults, or perhaps another sepulchre on site?) and then in what was then recent times to a different vault (possibly the current one) – shortly before Wright saw her:


‘One of these bodies, “whose antiquity is of an ancient date,” for the tenants of European sepulchres, is still existing in the same vault in which the Sheares’ remains are interred : the remains are those of a person, in former time renowned for her piety — a member of a religious community — of the name of Crookshank. Some sixty or seventy years ago, the wonder-working effects produced by this good lady’s remains, used to bring vast numbers of visitants to her tomb — till the spirit of whiskey unfortunately mingled a little too much with the spirit of veneration for the virtues of the nun, and the rudiments of a fine ” pattern” were spoiled by the intervention of the authorities. Poor Miss Crookshank’s relics, from that period till about the year 1816, when I first saw them, were visited only by curious boys and scientific gentlemen. In the month of February in the present year, after a lapse of twenty-six years, I found the remains of the nun removed from the place where they were originally deposited, as likewise those of John and Henry Sheares, and deposited in what is called the parish vault. Up to the time of the removal, which took place some five or six years ago, the remains continued, I was informed, in the same perfect state in which they have been long known to exist. But the exposure to the air, consequent to the removal of her remains, and those of the Sheares on the same occasion, had proved injurious to them, and to the latter especially.’


That’s a lot of potential for misidentification. I do think that this veneration of the unusually well-preserved nun is interesting in light of the present-day traditional of touching the finger of the ‘crusader’. I’m not aware of this kind of veneration of a corpse that wasn’t some sort of saint, priest, or nun, so I do wonder if the practice has been transferred over the years from one corpse to another. Possibly more than once, even. It’s possible that the age of the corpse before relocation got confused with its age at death. An ‘old mummy’ isn’t necessarily old in lifespan terms.


In any case, the broken jumbled corpse currently identified with the ‘nun’ was examined for the TV show ‘Mummy Roadshow’ in 200 (aired 2003) and shown to have been a female no older than 60 years old when she died, and not the over 100 years of age that both 19th century written sources and modern oral tradition hold. The findings are detailed in the book ‘Mummy Dearest’ (2005) by the same guys (Ron Beckett and Jerry Conlogue). Their theory as to why the ‘nun’ was thought to be so old is interesting, but I found it surprising that within a single generation, local people could have forgotten that this woman was actually half that age when she died. Beckett and Conlogue’s findings on the ‘nun’ were as follows;


‘She had a multitude of bumps on her arm, which sort of gave her the appearance of great age. We were not sure how her legend originated, but from what I saw inside her skull, she was not close to 122 years old. In fact, from the sutures in the skull plates, she appeared to be no older than sixty, and perhaps as young as her thirties. As for being a nun— we weren’t able to determine this. The bumps turned out to be very interesting. When we took a closer look, we noticed the nun had two elbows on her left arm, which suggested this was a mix-n-match mummy. We asked our friend, pathologist Larry Cartmell, about the bumps, and he thought they could be calcium deposits, probably a result of chronic kidney failure. He also added that the arm did not belong to the nun, because its owner would have had these awful bumps all over his or her body. You could see how this condition would have made someone believe this was an incredibly old woman, but the evidence pointed to someone much younger.’


Now, here I note that the fourth mummy, the one with no traditional backstory, turned out to also be female. The book states that they weren’t able to say any more about this one, and given that in 1888, this corpse was the nun/Miss Crookshank, I’m not sure how significant this conclusion actually is. We only know the relative positions of these three bodies, so there’s a reasonable chance that this is actually ‘her’. Interestingly, looking at the photos from 1888, recent times, and sometime in between (early 20th century I think – the poses are very similar and there is still some velvet hanging from the right hand coffin) you can see that the jumbled body on the left has been extensively messed with (broken up, in fact) and its coffin replaced between the first and second photos (and then rearranged between the second and third). This might support the idea that this body was a ‘supporting cast member’ of sorts and not the precious ‘nun’, who looks virtually identical and intact in all three images. Contradicting this however is the 1842 account suggesting that the nun was moved (not so much that she had deteriorated, as it’s fair to say that any of these may well have seen better days by 1822). The female on the right does not look as though she’s moved since her coffin broke apart – but perhaps that began when she was moved to this position, which could have been from elsewhere within this vault, or, if she was ever the ‘nun’, from the other vault mentioned. The fact is that we just don’t know which, if either of these, might originally have been the real-life Miss Crookshank, or if she even existed.


‘Mummy Dearest’ continues on the subject of the ‘thief’:

‘As for his hand, it was definitely severed cleanly, which indicated that he probably lost it after he died. We didn’t think this was done as punishment, which was the story that had long been circulating about this person.’


Note that Vicars in 1888 thought this, the middle of the three then and now, was a female corpse, but also believed it to be a post-mortem injury.


‘Given that his feet were sawed off so that he could fit in the coffin, it is just as likely that his hand was removed and sold to a medical student.


Finally, on the ‘crusader’:

‘Because he was a large individual, we surmised he simply did not fit into the one-size-fits-all coffins of the middle ages [sic]. It was not uncommon back then for a body to be crammed into a coffin too small for it. What we did not expect to find was that the feet and legs were much smaller, proportionally, when compared to his hands. As we looked closer, we also found that he had an extra pair of knees (and no, he didn’t have four legs). When Jerry’s X-ray showed two spines, it was clear that we were dealing with two corpses here – or at least one corpse on top of another partial one. Of course, there was one big question we couldn’t help but ask: Was he (or they) really a crusader? When crusaders returned from the Middle East and died, their legs were crossed when they were buried. This mummies’ legs were crossed, which was probably how the story originated. But we noticed that his pelvis had split apart at some point, and whoever had put the pieces back together had crossed the legs. This did not preclude him from being a crusader, but it didn’t prove anything, either. The definitive answer came courtesy of a fabric sample I found in his chest cavity. I was able to remove it with the endoscope, and then sent it to be carbon-dated, along with a sample of lung tissue. The numbers that came back said he had lived two hundred years after the crusades.


Frankly, I find even this unlikely. Even a date of c.1565 (assuming we call the Sack of Alexandria the latest of the crusades) would be far older than any of the other evidence would support, and would pre-date the present vaults themselves by at least a century. I suspect that the actual C14 dates were older, given that the authors talk about ‘the middle ages’ (a fellow blogger suggests 1364, but this would be less than 100 years after the last proper crusade). Of course this body could have been reburied and might in fact be older, although I think it unlikely. In any case, the only available scientific dating definitely didn’t give a date consistent with the crusades.


The St Michan’s section of the book (I recommend getting hold of it for the many other mummy stories included) closes with the musing ‘I wonder if St. Michan’s would have let us investigate the mummies had they known the the outcome of our study.’ The authors suggest that the custodians of the vaults, relying on the income that it generates, would not change their story, but the leaflet I have from 2009 is very upfront about the age of the vaults and the reality of the crusader (‘…in reality he never lived to see the Crusades!’). Worryingly though, interviews with the clergy following the recent theft show no sign of this sceptical attitude. This enlightenment period Dubliner is back to being misidentified as an ‘800-year old crusader’.


I should note that not everyone shares my scepticism. The article ‘Bodies preserved from the days of the Crusades in St Micham’s Church, Dublin’ (L M McKinley. J Pathol May 1977 (Vol. 122, Issue 1, Pages 27-8). This focuses only on the remarkable preservation in evidence (the author’s area of expertise and interest), not on the age or history of the bodies. Oh, and the author couldn’t spell ‘Michan’. Suffice to say that he didn’t carry out his due diligence on this one.


In passing/closing, I should note that the recent theft is not the first time that a head has been stolen from the vaults. Vicars relates the story ‘many years ago’ (from his 1888 perspective) of the head of John Sheares was stolen ‘for a wager’ but was recovered and replaced. Sadly, I doubt that the same is true this time, but I also find the suggestion that it must be muslims/immigrants/liberals rather unlikely and the outrage misplaced. This poor dead person may not have been a ‘crusader’, but he was a human being deserving of some respect and dignity (and that’s coming from someone who has no real problem with the managed display or even the ritualised touching of the corpse).

The Raven – Crow or No?

Common Raven (Wikimedia Commons/R. Altenkamp)


My title is inspired by Kaeli Swift‘s Twitter quiz ‘Crow or No?’, in which her followers must guess whether the bird in the image is a Crow or not (you should check out her site and Twitter feed linked above if you, like me, love Corvids. In this context she is being quite specific – the bird must have ‘Crow’ as part of its colloquial English name. So the above Raven would be a ‘no’, even though (unlike some birds that she posts) it is part of the genus Corvus, usually equated with ‘Crow’ in everything from modern specialist literature to everyday speech. Most people that know anything about corvids know that the Raven, the largest of the Corvids and of the genus Corvus, is a type of ‘Crow’. I was so sure of this myself that I have corrected people who’ve said ‘that’s not a Crow’ with ‘yes it is – Ravens ARE Crows’. But as I read into historical usage, I came to the conclusion that this isn’t strictly true, or at least, it didn’t used to be. It should really be the other way around; the Crow (and other members of the genus Corvus) are really types of Raven. Let me explain…

This is not just a question of confused popular usage. People that know their Corvids are pretty consistent about it. For example, Boria Sax’s 2012 book ‘City of Ravens’ tell us that;

‘Ravens (corvus corax) are members of the family corvidae, sometimes known collectively as “crows” or “corvids.”’

In his earlier work ‘Crow’ (2003), Sax is even more inclusive;

‘The word ‘Crow’ is occasionally used broadly for all members of this avian family. It is often used more restrictively for members of the genus Corvus, also known as ‘true crows’, which includes ravens, rooks, and jackdaws. Finally, the term may be used, perhaps a bit unscientifically, for those members of the genus Corvus that do not have any other common name.’

This logic is supported by scientists John M. Marzluff & Tony Angell when they tell us in their ‘In the Company of Crows and Ravens’ that;

‘Corvus is Latin for “a crow”.’

All three of these guys are American English writers by the way, but usage is quite consistent on both sides of the pond. The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) report things the same way on their website, classifying Ravens as just one of eight ‘Crow’ species in the British Isles.

And yet, when we look at things from an historical perspective, things were pretty much the other way around. The original Linnaean classification as it existed in 1756 was as follows (Latin then French, I’ve added the English in square brackets]);


  1. CORVUS.  Rostrum convexum- cultratum maxillis subaequalibus: basi fetis tectum.
  2. Corvus – le Corbeau [Raven]
  3. Cornix frugivora – ___ [Rook]
  4. Cornix cinerea – la Corneille [Crow]
  5. Cornix caerulea – ___ [Roller – no longer classified a Corvid]
  6. Monedula – la Chouca [Jackdaw]
  7. Caryocatactes – le Caffenoix [Nutcracker]
  8. Pica glandaria – le Geay [Jay]
  9. Pica caudata – la Pie [Magpie]
  10. Ciffa nigra cirrata, cauda lutea. Barr. 45. [Not sure what these last two were = some sort of Oriole?]
  11. Ciffa nigra, alis caudaque luteis. Barr. 45. B 2

The above shows that the direct French cognate for ‘Corvus’ was ‘Corbeau’. This is where the English dialect name ‘Corby’ comes from, and Corby (or ‘Corbie’, or ‘Croupy’) almost always meant ‘Raven’. In Romance languages the original Latin clarity is preserved to this day; in French Corbeau is Raven, and Corneille is Crow. In Italian (e.g. this 1848 book); ‘i Corvi’ (the Ravens) were (and remain) Corvus corax and ‘le Cornacchie’ (Corvus corone, Corvus cornix)’ were the Crows. Spanish has the analogues Cuervo and Corneja, all following the Latin Corvus/Corvi. Let’s use Spanish as the example, in which the genus ‘Los Cuervos’ were ‘the Ravens’ and, as late as 1837, were distinct from Corvus corone and Corvus cornix (both identified with ‘La Corneja’ just as both are ‘Crows’ in English). Convergence and confusion of naming happened here too, but the other way around. ‘Cuervo’ (which actually is from the Latin Corvus for ‘Raven’) is now used to mean both ‘Raven’ and ‘Crow’. In fact, the Raven is now known as ‘El Cuervo Grande’ or ‘the large raven’. This despite the fact that the Spanish derivative of Cornix (‘Corneja’) still exists! ‘Cuervo’ still means ‘Raven’ in Spanish today (see here). Logically enough, all of this originates in ancient Roman Latin, as we’ll see. The definitive form of Linnaeus’ system appeared in 1758, giving us the modern form for the Raven of Corvus corax as well as Corvus corone and Corvus cornix for the Carrion and Hooded Crows. In both incarnations of the system the Raven is listed as the first of its genus, as we’d expect from the largest and most impressive species, and the one after which the genus is named!

Reaching back further into time we find the 1555 Pierre Belon illustration that I’ve reproduced above. The caption states;

‘Corax, en Grec, Coruus en Latin, Corbeau en Francoys.’

The caption for the Crow has;

‘Coroni en Grec, Cornix en Latin, Corneiulle, en Francoys.’

Here we have a Tudor vintage classification, the common Latin and French forms from which Linnaeus concocted his more scientific system. Renaissance writers obviously took their cue from the ancient Romans and Greeks. This is where things get a little muddy, because the Romans weren’t always clear on which was which. In an article in the Transactions of the Philological Society (Issue 5, 1854, p.107) entitled ‘On the confusion of meaning between Corvus and Cornix’, Hensleigh Wedgewood agrees broadly that the Romans used ‘Corvus’ for Raven and Cornix for Rook, and ‘The Birds of the Latin Poets’ (p.73) claims;

‘CORVUS. Raven….The name corvus was applied also by Roman writers to both the crow and the rook.’

However, having checked the various sources, the identification of the intended bird seems to have been done on the basis of stereotypical behaviour. Wedgewood sees in the following passage Pliny’s description of the Raven’s famous ‘croak’, which given the use of corvorum seems reasonable;

‘Pessima eorum (corvorum) significatio (in auspiciis), quum glutiunt vocem velut strangulati.’

However, he then references Virgil’s use of ‘cornix’ and claims that a solitary corvid ‘inviting’ rain must be a Raven;

‘Tum cornix plena pluviam vocat improba voce

Et sola in sicca secum spatiatur arena’

Meaning something like ‘the Raven with full voice calls down the rain and walks alone along the sand’. Now, I’m no classical scholar, but what about this sentence necessitates a Raven and not a Crow (Cornix)? Both make noise, both were birds of ill omen, and both could be found on their own. I am not convinced, and I’ve found two other translations,  neither was both, of which are quite happy to take Cornix at face value. Likewise, Wedgewood is convinced that Virgil was talking of Rooks when he wrote;

‘ete pastu decedens agmine magno Corvorum increpuit densis exercitus alis.’

Again, only one aspect of the intended bird is included here; that we are talking about multiple birds. Sure enough, the Raven is often a solitary bird, but they can also operate in groups; I myself have seen them in the wild in numbers. And although Rooks are very rarely on their own, Carrion and other Crows may be seen in large groups, small ones, or on their own. Here’s another of Virgil’s;

‘Tum liquidas corvi presso ter gutture voces aut quater ingeminant, et saepe cubilibus altis nescio qua praeter solitum dulcedine laeti inter se in foliis strepitant; iuvat imbribus actis progeniem parvam dulcisque revisere nidos’


‘Soft then the voice of rooks from indrawn throat

Thrice, four times, o’er repeated, and full oft

On their high cradles, by some hidden joy

Gladdened beyond their wont, in bustling throngs

Among the leaves they riot; so sweet it is,

When showers are spent, their own loved nests again

And tender brood to visit.’


Fowler in ‘A Year With the Birds’ (1914) confidently (complete with a ‘No True Englishman’ logical fallacy) identifies these birds as Rooks, but again, I just don’t see that this contains enough diagnostic information. The passage works just as well if Corvi are Ravens. In fact I don’t see any of these analyses as definitive. Even assuming that these authors are talking about other birds, the confusion is supposedly with the Rook, not the Carrion or Hooded Crow.

In any case, the Greeks seem to have been consistent, using Korone for the Crow, and sometimes the physically similar and seasonal Rook but not the Raven (Korax). I have not taken this line of enquiry any further than the ‘Glossary of Greek Birds’ however (p.11). There has definitely always been some grey area across the species. The Anglo-Saxons seem to have named their corvids based upon how they sounded, with the result that they were somewhat inconsistent with their terminology. This thesis is a good read on that subject, although I remain unconvinced at (again) the claim that Latin speakers used the different names interchangeably. I have checked all of the sources in footnote 65 (p.44) and none actually support this. The ‘Brussels Glossary’ quote of ‘Corvus hrefne oththe corax’ seems to simply be listing three names (Latin, Anglo-Saxon and Greek) for a Raven, presumably in a play on words (literally ‘Raven ravens other raven’). However, William Brunsdon Yapp’s ‘Birds in Medieval Manuscripts’ (London, 1981, p.57) is also sceptical that pre-Linnaean observers knew the difference, saying;

‘…neither Shakespeare nor Tennyson, nor C. S. Lewis nor Victoria Sackville-West could tell rooks from crows, or even apparently knew that there are two species, it seems unlikely that there was any clear distinction in the Middle Ages’.

This shouldn’t surprise us though. How many people today know or can tell the difference? Then, as now, there will have been people more intimately familiar with the birds and who would surely have known the difference, but pre-scientific method, they aren’t writing it down. Regardless of ‘folk taxonomies’ and historical misidentification, there were nonetheless different names and some level of awareness that the names denoted different creatures. Across the span of history it seems clear that Corvus overwhelmingly meant ‘Raven’ rather than ‘Crow’. Moreover, as I show above, by the time of Linnaeus it was very clear which was which. Under that system, Corvus was simultaneously the first name for the species within the genus, the specific scientific name for the Raven itself (as simply Corvus with no additional name), AND remained the common Latin name for the Raven. The modified form of Linnaean classification combined the Latin and Greek to create a hierarchical system. Thus ‘Corvus corax’ literally meant ‘Raven raven’ like ‘Rattus rattus’, and not ‘Crow raven’. Carrion Crow makes sense as ‘Corvus corone’ or ‘Raven crow’ on the same basis. Indeed, the common German term for the Carrion Crow is exactly that; ‘Rabenkrähe’, and it seems clear to me that the dialect ‘Corby-Crow’ (or ‘Croupy-Crow’), meaning Carrion Crow was the English parallel to this (‘Corby’ meaning Raven as above).

So far, so logical. So what changed? Well, as much as Linnaeus’ system caught on, within a few decades naturalists and zoologists were conflating and confusing terms. By 1800 the ‘American Review’ gave the modern scientific name ‘Corvus corax’ with a reversed English translation ‘Raven crow’; i.e. Roman ‘Corvus’ for ‘Crow’ and Greek ‘Corax’ for Raven. In 1805 Jedidiah Morse in America included the corvids under the label ‘The Crow Kind’ (Corvus), although he still listed the Raven first (as Corvus carnivorous). In 1809/10 the English naturalist George Shaw had;



Corvus Corax.

Black crow about two feet in length, with a blue gloss on the upper parts, and rounded tail.

The Raven. Will. Penn. Lath &c, &c.

Le Corbeau. Briss. Buff &c.


In 1849 we find William Dowling’s ‘A popular natural history of quadrupeds and birds’ saying (p.50);

‘Latin word corvus, which signifies a crow’

This was sustained in ‘Insects Abroad: Being a Popular Account of Foreign Insects (etc)’ by John George Wood (1874);

‘The specific name corvus signifies ” a crow,”’

All of which doesn’t really help much. People have been confusing these names for a very long time, and Linnaeus’ attempt to standardise on the traditional and largely consistent Latin and Greek nomenclature really didn’t catch on. For most intents and purposes, in English at least, Corvus now means ‘Crow’ and not Raven and has done for over 200 years; almost as long as we’ve been scientifically studying these birds. I’m certainly not going to persuade any taxonomists, zoologists, ornithologists or other scientists to revert now. The only really useful conclusion here is the reminder that, historically, Corvus meant Raven, not Crow. Because it now means both, it is possibly to be correct either way around. The Raven may, by convention, have become a type of Crow, but the Crow is also a sort of Raven. This actually sort of fits with the biological reality – not only are Carrion Crows very similar to Ravens, but they can actually sometimes interbreed; ‘Raven Crows’ indeed. As to why this reversal happened, my suspicion lies with the quirk that the two words appear to be closely related; ‘Corv…Crow’ in English. In reality there is no etymological connection between the two, which is presumably why the distinction is preserved in other languages as I covered above.

Hairy Bikers? Hairy BS, more like.

I’ve just watched the ‘Hairy Bikers’ new TV series on British pubs, and to my surprise, made it nearly all the way through the episode without any really obvious nonsense. Then, in the last couple of minutes, they mentioned the practice of ‘Ale Conners’ sitting in beer in leather breeches to test how sticky (and therefore sugary) it was.

It took me all of twenty seconds on Google to find something debunking this obvious load of old trousers!

Tomb of Dracula?


Well, no, it isn’t.

UPDATE 3 (2020!) – I’ve since realised that Vlad III is almost certainly not buried at Snagov either. See this article.

UPDATE 2 – This article received a lot of online media attention, but somehow I didn’t receive a pingback from Discovery News. Their coverage can be found here.

UPDATE 1 – Not long after I posted this, another sceptic weighed in and managed to spot that the tomb in question is indeed well-known – unsurprisingly given the context, it’s one of the Ferrillo family, Matteo Ferrillo, Count of Muro. There’s absolutely no doubt about it, and anyone from the church in question, or any Italian medieval scholar, could have told the ‘researchers’ this. Unbelievable nonsense that once again, the press fail to fact-check in any way.

It’s been a while, but this one’s brought me out of First World War-related work to comment. The Daily Mail (sigh) is reporting that the grave of Vlad III – the historical Dracula – may have been found. There’s little to go on, though a full view of the tomb in question can be seen here. The tomb was noted by a university student, but the connection is being made by one Raffaello Glinni. He’s the claimant here, and you’ve not heard the last of him…

There are basic errors with the piece – Vlad was not a ‘Count’ like his fictional namesake, he was a voivode (prince). The ‘Carpathians’ were not a Transylvanian family as the 4th image in the Mail gallery implies, they are a mountain range! I can’t wait to see the reality TV show ‘Keeping Up With the Carpathians’. Dracula did not ‘disappear’ in battle, but was likely decapitated and buried at Snagov monastery (though there is some question over this). But these are incidental. The claim itself is built on a premise that is by no means certain, namely that Vlad III had a daughter who supposedly decamped to Italy as a child, at some point ransomed Vlad (by all accounts quite dead by this point) back, and had him buried in a church in Naples. This in itself is an extraordinary claim, as it’s far from clear that Vlad even had a daughter – see this tree of the House of Basarab, of which the Draculesti were a subset. No Maria, no daughter. The historical status quo is that Vlad had only sons.

This site repeats the claim and expands upon it, suggesting that the mysterious daughter was adopted by the widow of Vlad’s contemporary and fellow resistor of Ottoman rule, George Skanderbeg, and given refuge at the court of King Ferdinand I of Naples, where she changed her name to sort-of-but-not-quite conceal her heritage. ‘Maria Balsa’ supposedly means ‘Daughter of the Dragon’ in ‘Old Romanian’. As far as I can tell, whilst balaur is Romanian for ‘dragon’, ‘Bal’ certainly isn’t. Why this supposed daughter would need to conceal her identity, and if she did, why she’d choose a Romanian-derived name, are anyone’s guesses. It’s claimed that both men were members of the Order of the Dragon, but I can’t confirm that either, and I’m pretty sure it’s not true. Elsewhere Alfonso D’Aragona is instead claimed as Maria Balsa’s Dragon Order benefactor. He really was part of the Order, but so what? Lots of European nobility joined the order – it’s a bit like the Freemasonry trope of later on; just because a politician was a Freemason doesn’t mean he’s neck-deep in whatever paranoid historical conspiracy one might dream up.

The Maria Balsa story is several years old, dating to 2012. It was featured in season 6, episode 9 of Italian TV series ‘Mistero’ in 2012, entitled ‘La Figlia Segreta di Dracula’ i.e. ‘The Secret Daughter of Dracula’. From what I’ve seen of the series online, it’s very much ‘Ancient Aliens’ territory; ghosts, alien abduction, and so on. The original claim relates not to the church mentioned in the Mail article (Santa Maria La Nova), but to a different structure; Acerenza cathedral. Guess who made it, and also appears in the ‘documentary’? Yep, Raffaello Glinni. At the time, he claimed that Vlad was buried under the cathedral; clearly he’s revised his hypothesis since then. There’s another madcap suggestion regarding Acerenza, which is that a statue of a monster biting the neck of a woman is also relevant, and supposedly relates to the story of Lilith and the pop-culture suggestions that she might be a progenitor of vampires. The historical Vlad III has absolutely no connection to vampires, folkloric or fictional, beyond the limited connection made by Bram Stoker, so this is a total red herring. The statue itself doesn’t even appear to be that of a dragon, but rather a lion. Glinni also claims that a carved head in Acerenza cathedral with a beard and pointy teeth must also be Vlad, despite no resemblance and the fact that pointy teeth are a feature of the 19th century literary vampire. Bram Stoker took only Dracula’s name and status as a medieval antagonist of the Turks from real history. We would not expect an historical depiction of Vlad III to have vampire teeth!


Note also the entirely co-incidental saint with serpent/dragon – nothing to do with Dracula or the Dragon Order

Billed as a ‘medieval history scholar’ in the new article, Glinni is actually a lawyer by profession. His name took me to his site, which is sparse but getting there in terms of BS History Bingo. Knights Templar? Check. Freemasonry? Check. Da Vinci? You bet. Gibberings about non-specific magical vortices? Not looking too good. In fact it’s looking like the use of ‘secret history’ to support speculative archaeology. There is an historical document from 1531 indirectly referenced here, which is apparently cited in a 1958 book by D’Elia and Gelao. There’s even a page reference of p.289/290. The only D’Elia/Gelao book I can find is this from 1999, where Maria Balsa is indeed referenced. There’s no doubt that an historical figure of that name existed (wife of Giacomo Alfonso Ferrillo, Count of Muro and Acerenza), and she was apparently Slavic. But if this 1531 chronicle that supports not just this claim but the new tomb suggestion exists, I can find no reference to it. If any Italian speakers can unearth it, please comment below.

So the underpinnings of this story are pretty questionable. What of the new evidence? Do we have anything else to go on? Well, like the Acerenza carving, the effigy on the Santa Maria La Nova tomb also looks absolutely nothing like the surviving depictions of Vlad;


Which leaves…what? Well, supposedly, the big revelation is in the carved stone dragon on this tomb:

‘Medieval history scholar Raffaello Glinni said the 16th century tomb is covered in images and symbols of the House of the Transylvanian “Carpathians,” and not the tomb of an Italian nobleman. “When you look at the bas-relief sculptures, the symbolism is obvious. The dragon means Dracula and the two opposing sphinxes represent the city of Thebes, also known as Tepes. In these symbols, the very name of the count Dracula Tepes is written,” Glinni told reporters.’

A dragon was certainly the main element in the badge of the Order of the Dragon to which Vlad III’s father belonged. We don’t actually know what Vlad III’s personal coat of arms was, but he may have used the same emblem. But this was a dragon curled around on itself with its own tail wrapped around its neck. The badge varied, but none of the extant Order dragon depictions resemble this Italian carving. The Thebes/Tepes connection seems to be entirely spurious; I can find nothing on it. The sphinxes are simply artistic convention in European art. Thebes itself is a Greek placename, Tepes a Turkish Romanian (thanks Michael!) word for ‘impaler’. Where’s the connection? And why would anyone bother to ‘encode’ a vague reference to a member of the Dracul family. Either they wanted people to know he was buried there, in which case make it clear, or they wanted him forgotten, in which case don’t slap a dragon on his tomb. For that matter, it would be pretty tricky to build a huge monumental tomb, complete with effigy, for someone you’re keeping anonymous. But if Vlad’s daughter was amongst friends in Naples, with the Dragon Order connection, why would they use a generic dragon and not their proper symbol? Is the tomb even anonymous? I find it hard to believe that a splendid monumental tomb like that isn’t recorded as being that of a known Italian noble.

I’m afraid the whole thing is ‘Da Vinci Code’ level conspiracy, not real history. No-one would be more excited than me to discover that Vlad’s final resting place had been discovered, but this ‘news’ is a long way from that. Glinni and co have requested permission to open the tomb, which is something we’ve seen in other outlandish claims about the dead. It’s rare that permission is ever granted, which means the claimants get to a) keep making their claims and b) blame the authorities for suppressing secret knowledge. It’s win-win for this kind of nonsense.