Originally posted 8th June 2023

Sappho was an ancient Greek lyric poet who lived and worked in the 600s-500s BC. Today, she is best known for her poems expressing and celebrating love between women, hence the English words “sapphic” and “lesbian” (the latter derived from her home island of Lesbos) and her sexuality has been a source of furious debate and controversy down the millennia. This was also the case during the medieval period, though by that time, as today, only a few fragments of her work survived.

During her life, Sappho was a prolific and much-admired poet. 400 years after she died, the Library of Alexandria catalogued nine scrolls of her work: probably around 10,000 lines of poetry. They also listed her as one of the nine lyric geniuses: the only woman included in the list. She was referred to as “the Poetess”, placing her on a level with Homer, “the Poet”. However, by about the 900s AD most of her work had disappeared. One theory is that it was deliberately destroyed due to its sexual (and possibly homosexual) content, which was considered unacceptable in a newly-Christianised Europe; one early church father described her as a “sensual love-mad woman”. Interestingly, given her reputation today, a lot of objection to - and mocking description of - Sappho focussed on her alleged promiscuity with men rather than women and the same church father also referred to her as a sex worker; his original Greek word has multiple possible translations, but all have that sense. However, the story that Sappho’s works were subject to widespread, deliberate destruction only emerges in the 1500s.

It is more likely that Sappho’s works perished through accident and neglect. Copies of her work probably existed in Constantinople (modern Istanbul), but the city was repeatedly sacked during the medieval period, with all the loss and destruction that accompanies such an event. What was more, early medieval scholars were far more interested in Latin work than Greek, so little Greek poetry apart from the works of Homer was published in western Europe; many of the fragments of Sappho’s work that did survive did so because they were copied into Latin works such as Ovid’s Heroides. She also used a dialect of Greek that wasn’t widely understood, which further reduced demand for her work, meaning that it wasn’t widely copied; rot and bookworms took care of the rest.

What is clear is that those who did have access to Sappho’s poems in the middle ages highly admired her. When the Italian writer Boccaccio wrote his “De Claris Mulieribus” (Of Famous Women), he wrote about a number of women from antiquity, mostly presenting them as notorious rather than admirable. However, he praised Sappho’s ability in the arts. Sappho is also presented as an archetype of a learned lady in Christine de Pisan’s work defending women from the misogynistic beliefs of the time and Thomas More composed an epigram praising her, in imitation of Plato. She appears regularly in art surrounded by books and writing instruments and often playing the lute. Most of these authors were uninterested in her sexuality or relationships with either men or women but admired her simply as an artist. However, that is not to say that nobody in our period noticed the love for women expressed in some of Sappho’s poetry; when the Elizabethan John Donne wrote his “Sappho to Philanis” he alluded to her most famous poem expressing love for another woman, known as Fragment 31, and included a scene of her making love to another woman.

Originally posted 15th June 2023

Piers Gaveston, or Perrot de Gabaston, was a nobleman originally from Gascony in south-eastern France who joined Edward II’s household when the prince - as he was then - was sixteen years old and Piers was about the same age, possibly a little older. The two quickly became extremely close friends and when Edward I wanted to punish Prince Edward for quarrelling with his treasurer in 1305 Piers was one of the companions he banished from court. However, Piers wasn’t gone for long; Edward knighted him in 1306, and while he underwent the ceremony alongside 250 other young men the close relationship between Edward and Piers was already beginning to attract attention. The author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi (Life of Edward the Second) remarked “I do not remember to have heard that one man so loved another” and compared their relationship to Achilles and Patroclus, adding that he had not heard that Achilles and Patroclus were “immoderate”. Other chroniclers also remarked on Edward’s obsession with Piers and finally Edward I banished Piers with a handsome allowance as long as he stayed out of Prince Edward’s life. When Edward I died, the new Edward II’s first act as king was to recall Piers.

It’s not clear what exactly the relationship between Edward and Piers was. In official documents, Edward referred to Piers as his brother and it’s possible that they had pledged mutual loyalty in a form of adoptive brotherhood: a relationship modelled on Jonathan and David in the Old Testament, to whom the writer of the Vita Edwardi Secundi also compared them (though they were also not “immoderate”). If they were lovers, this could not have been widely known at the beginning of Edward’s reign otherwise it is extremely unlikely that Philip IV of France would have allowed Edward to marry his daughter Isabella. As well as having children with their respective wives, each man also had an illegitimate child, suggesting that they were attracted to women beyond simply doing their duty to produce heirs. However, this does not preclude being attracted to men as well.

Whatever was known or believed about Edward and Piers at the time of Edward’s marriage, it was quickly rumoured that Edward loved Piers far more than Isabella. Edward did nothing to help by not only giving Piers a prominent role in his and Isabella’s joint coronation but arranging for Westminster Hall to be decorated for the coronation feast with hangings showing his own arms alongside Piers’ with no recognition for Isabella. He also gave the wedding presents he had received from Isabella’s father to Piers without having bothered to arranged for Isabella to have an income to support her household.

We will never know what went on behind the doors of Edward II’s bedchamber, but it was clear to Edward’s barons that he would be permanently distracted as long as Piers was alive. In 1312 he was arrested by the Earl of Surrey, who swore to keep him safe until an arrangement could be reached with Edward. However, he was then abducted by the Earl of Lancaster, who, alongside several other earls, had him murdered. Edward was devastated and spent the next several years seeking revenge.

Originally posted 22nd June 2023

In 2012, in the fields near Trumpington on the outskirts of Cambridge, Cambridge University’s Archeological Unit found an unusual burial: a sixteen-year-old girl buried in a wooden bed, along with ornate jewellery made of gold and garnets. The combination of the cross and a bed has only been seen once before, in the 1800s, and there have only been eighteen bed burials of any kind found in the UK, several clustered around Cambridge. This week, forensic artist Hew Morrison unveiled a facial reconstruction of the girl, showing what she may have looked like in life, including the fact that her left eye was slightly lower than her right.

Analysis of her bones and teeth has also revealed that she was born near the Alps, possibly in Southern Germany, and travelled to England shortly before she fell ill and died. Her diet changed when she arrived in England and this may have been due to a change to a more religious life; the site in Trumpington may have belonged to a previously-unknown nunnery. If so, it was a high-status one; not only does the jewellery found with this girl suggest that she came from a noble if not royal background but the site also had some high-status imported pottery.

At the time of her death in the mid 600s, Christianity was just starting to become re-established in England. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People he places significant emphasis on the role of royal women in the early English church. Anglo-Saxon monasteries were frequently double monasteries with both monks and nuns, usually founded and run by an initial abbess who was from a royal family. Women also tended to be more educated than men during this period and that meant that the help and company of women was invaluable to early missionaries. St Boniface, who worked in what is now Germany, sent for his cousin Leoba from Wessex to help him, since she was renowned for her learning. She would go on to be an abbess in Mainz and trained up many other abbesses.

The girl buried in Trumpington probably wasn’t asked to travel to a far-off country to become an abbess, but she may have been an early pioneer in the conversion of East Anglia to Christianity, whether as a nun or possibly - Bede also has a great deal to say about the role of married women in the conversion - as a young bride.

Originally posted 28th June 2023

Leonardo da Vinci is best known for his art, most famously the Mona Lisa, and his drawings of strange and unusual war machines such as his “tank”: a drawing among the sketches he made while working for Leonardo Sforza as a military engineer. The tank in particular does not appear to have been a practical design but part of a brainstorming exercise; da Vinci frequently used drawing to experiment with techniques, imagery and ideas.

As well as art and engineering, da Vinci was a pioneer in the study of anatomy, working to improve his art by understanding the structure and musculature of human bodies. Mostly, he studied live subjects, but he also used dissection, including about 30 human bodies beginning with the body of a 100-year old man who had died peacefully in a Florentine hospital in 1506. Such dissections were heavily regulated by the church, which viewed it as desecration of the dead, but da Vinci carried out his dissections openly.

Da Vinci’s interests overlapped as he applied his engineering knowledge to human anatomy, for example by studying the flow of blood through the heart from a hydrodynamic point of view. He wasn’t the first to observe the flow of blood through the chambers of the heart - that honour goes to the Syrian scholar Ibn Nafis, writing in the 1200s - but he was an early European pioneer in studying the structure of the heart. However, his research wasn’t widely shared and it would be a century before William Harvey published his theories on the circulation of blood, in 1628.