Friday, 13 October 2017

Medieval Taxation

Death and taxes are life’s only certainties.

In the UK today there are many taxes, but the big three are income tax, VAT (a sales tax that is widely but not universally applied), and National Insurance (effectively extra income tax, but I think pensioners don’t pay it).

None of these existed in the medieval world. Income tax was only brought in by Pitt the Younger as a temporary measure (ahem) to ensure we had sufficient funds to fight Napoleon.

How did medieval monarchs get the money necessary just to fund the day-to-day expenses of the state, as well as the huge sums essential for castle-building, going on crusade or that age old expense of war with France?

The king was the greatest landowner in the country, which meant he had, on a personal level, a vast income from rents and the like. However, this was not enough to cover significant expenditure. There were a range of smaller taxes and tolls (not all going to him directly) which I’ll mention below, but the quickest way to raise cash was a general levy on wealth.

This might be levied at a rate of a tenth of a man’s total assets. So, if you had £100 of goods, it’d be £10. Needless to say, this was not a popular thing. In fact, it could often be very, very difficult to get such a levy approved by the nobility and clergy (the degree to which their consent was legally required varied over the medieval period, but given how many rebellions there were it was never a good thing to repeatedly piss off your own nobles).

One of the reasons King John was and is so reviled is the amount he taxed. John, when not starving prisoners to death, was a devious taxman and worked out he could make a lot of cash without needing to curry favour with the nobility simply by hiking the fines for various transgressions. He did this to punitive levels, and mulcted huge sums from his people. He got a lot of money, and resentment, this way.

Edward I, the grandson of John, had a rather clever idea which worked very well for a number of years. The big export of England was wool, and Edward arranged for the customs to be handled by Italian bankers who, in return, ensured the king always had access to credit. It was mutually beneficial, as the bankers got steady income from a guaranteed source and the king could get ready cash very quickly whenever he needed it (until the bankers over-stretched themselves elsewhere and the arrangement collapsed, but that was hardly Edward’s fault).

Knighthood could be a punishment. This sounds odd, but knights were sometimes defined by wealth (an order might go out commanding every man worth £40 or more to turn up at a given time and place to be knighted). As knights, they’d be expected to fight for the king when required, for a certain length of time, and perhaps furnish a few soldiers themselves. Needless to say, many men were not taken with this idea. Scutage was a way around this problem. From the Latin ‘scutum’ (shield), the term means cash given in lieu of fighting, enabling the king to hire mercenaries and enabling the reluctant knight to avoid going to war. Once again, John got quite a lot of money this way (and yet more resentment).

There were also a number of tolls applied to pay for various things. Pontage was a toll for the repair and maintenance of bridges, stallage was a toll for stallholders in the market, pavage for roads, murage for walls and wharfage for, er, wharves.

It’s interesting that the medieval form of taxes focused on assets and specific actions. There was no attempt to tax income, and it’d be hundreds of years before income tax, now the mainstay of the tax system, came into being. The overall tax burden on people was generally low, but their overall prosperity also wasn’t great, healthcare was often actively harmful, and a bad harvest would see thousands die.

Of the two certainties, taxes were lower than today, but death was eminently more commonplace.


Friday, 6 October 2017

Common historical mistakes in TV and film

I’m not picking out specific films, just commenting on some historical inaccuracies which are common. Some have a film-making excuse (such as the lighting one), others are just plain wrong.

I’ve never used a bow, but I know that the war bows used (most famously by the English at Agincourt) in the medieval period were immensely powerful. So powerful, in fact, that a huge amount of training was necessary not merely for the skill aspect, but to have the physical strength necessary to draw one back. If an average modern man tried it, their skeleton would give way before the bow did.

Even if you were very strong, you would draw back and either loose immediately (for a high arc, aiming for a mass of men type shot) or pause very briefly to target a specific individual. You most certainly would not hold it whilst your buffoon of a commanding officer had hundreds of archers in agonising exertion because he decided to leave a huge gap between the words ‘draw’ and ‘fire’ [more on that below]. It’d be physically impossible, as well as immensely stupid.

Whilst we’re on bows, they aren’t ‘fired’. They aren’t firearms, there is literally no fire involved (unlike guns). They’re loosed or shot. This is a pet hate of mine (although it’s very easy to do it by accident, so it’s a bit more forgiveable than the idiotic idea of having men’s shoulders torn apart by needlessly holding back a fully drawn bow for half a minute).

Scots and woad do not mix. Woad was applied by Picts (the word is from the Roman name for them, the same root as the word ‘picture’, because the Picts were painted). The Scotti were a Hibernian (Irish) tribe that migrated to Caledonia, killing and conquering the Picts. As an aside, woad was antiseptic, and may’ve helped slightly with preventing wounds becoming infected.

An understandable inaccuracy relates to plate armour. Plate armour (beneath which would be mail and a quilted jacket that was, by itself, strong enough to sometimes prevent an arrow piercing the body) was bloody fantastic. Medieval knights shifted from the sword and shield to the two-handed sword because the armour was so good a shield was pretty much superfluous. Curved metal plates with mail and gambeson underneath rendered a knight almost impervious to attack (the longbow was something of an exception to this, and one reason French knights detested English archers). At Agincourt, an awful lot of French knights either drowned in mud or were stabbed in the skull (either through eye holes in helmets, or after having their helmets wrenched off). Getting through plate is a devil of a job. Something like a crow’s beak works relatively well but in a duel a sword would outclass such a top-heavy weapon.

However, in films you do have to kill and wound characters. Having everyone wander about in surprising safety would rather kill dramatic tension, so this is the most understandable inaccuracy. That said, stabbing’s the way to go if you want to knock off a knight in armour. Slash at him with a sword and you may annoy him by scratching his favourite breastplate, but bruised pride is about as far as the wound will go.

Battles often degenerate into mêlées, but this was generally not accurate. Whilst the medieval period didn’t quite have the strategy of the Greek and Roman world, tactics and battlefield deployments were not haphazard, nor did warfare regress to pre-Roman Celtic mayhem. Being together in a unit is advantageous. If you’re spearmen, you get a bristling hedge of steel to face the enemy, and a shield wall to confront their attack. If you’re archers, you get a cloud of arrows which is rather harder to avoid than just the one. Not only that, foot soldiers who are spread out are a horseman’s dream to destroy. In formation, foot soldiers can fend off cavalry with relative ease. Routed, infantry are target practice for horsemen.

There are also a number of little everyday inaccuracies, some of which are understandable, others of which are odd. Maps were pretty uncommon (there are some famous examples, such as the old mappa mundi, but these were exceptions rather than the rule). They can be useful for storytelling purposes, but mostly they weren’t needed. A man from a village would know the way to the nearest town. If he needed to go on from then, he’d ask for directions. The absence of maps and understanding of geography beyond the immediate vicinity did have occasional perverse consequences, such as the horde of peasants that followed the First Crusade asking if they were nearly at Jerusalem after a few days of walking (they weren’t).

Clothes were not bland. They were often bright colours, sometimes of differing hues. Mud-stained peasant brown was not the extent of the 14th century colour chart for poor people. (Some believe Robin Hood was actually invented by dyers to advertise their wares).

Cartwheels have spokes. This is not high technology, it’s common sense. A solid wheel weighs a lot more, creating more work for your donkey and increasing the risk of the cart sinking into mud.

Thatch has to be thick. Several feet, at least. You can’t have a few layers of straw and call that thatch because it won’t actually work.

In the modern world, we’re used to constant and widespread light. But that just didn’t happen in the medieval world. Yes, there were light sources, including the hearth, candles, lamps and torches. But these things aren’t free. The hearth devours wood, candles cost money, lamp oil is expensive (which reminds me, boiling oil wasn’t used by those defending sieges so much as boiling water or sand [much cheaper]) and torches only last thirty minutes or so.

When an explorer enters an ancient ruin and torches are burning, or a medieval clerk has eight damned candles burning on his desk or scattered about for a visually pleasing shot, it’s just plain wrong. There’s often excessive lighting in films (in modern day settings, there are sometimes half a dozen lamps in a room, or more) but it makes no sense at all in a medieval setting.


Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Proofreading and formatting services

Bit of a break from my usual reviews and historical rambles to bring you some more serious business.

Having proofed and formatted numerous solo works, from short stories to full-blown novels, I’m now offering proofreading and formatting to others, on a professional basis.

Full information can be found at my new website:

Both services are intended for text that is complete from an editorial/creative perspective, and requires only the final (if time-consuming) touches of a proofread and formatting. Proofreading will be a line-by-line reading to find and correct/delete spelling and grammatical errors, whilst formatting gets text into a form that can be submitted to an electronic or hard copy self-publishing service.

Prices will vary somewhat according to word count, error frequency, and whether there’s anything finickity, but a rough guideline (not including discounts) would be £50-60 for e-book formatting and around £200-240 for proofreading.

A range of discounts are available, the best being 30% off for a limited time, to help encourage new clients. (Discounts are also available for returning clients and for those commissioning both services at once).

If you’ve got a finished story on your hands but would prefer someone else spend hours doing the donkey work, give me a bell at and we’ll discuss getting it into shape for submission.


Friday, 29 September 2017

Marcus Aurelius and Henry II: a comparison of incompetence

Two historical chaps seem to get a lot more praise than I think they deserve. To balance that, in a small measure, I wrote this about Marcus Aurelius and Henry II.

Marcus Aurelius was the last emperor of the Golden Age of Imperial Rome, and was succeeded by his son (possibly) Commodus. Both men will be relatively well-known as they feature in the entertaining film Gladiator. Marcus Aurelius also left a lasting impression on the Romans as a great emperor and a virtuous man.

However, he is dramatically overrated. Imperial Rome’s Golden Age happened because each emperor nominated an adopted, rather than actual, son to succeed him (or sons, Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius both succeeded Antoninus Pius). Marcus Aurelius chose otherwise, although there is doubt over whether Commodus was his son (possible this was fuelled by the latter’s horrendousness which made others want to disassociate the pair). Regardless, Marcus Aurelius, lauded as wise, left the empire in the hands of a murderous, bloodthirsty, incestuous mad bastard.

This did not have a positive impact on the Roman Empire.

Under the emperors from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius, men of high status and talent benefited. Emperors were unafraid of rivals and could promote the best men to the highest ranks, and such men were unafraid of tyranny or jealousy, and could make fortunes and achieve success without fearing their imminent execution. It was a great virtuous circle.

Commodus rather ruined this by his bad habit of killing those at the top. This meant that skilled men were lost and those who might have succeeded to their posts were reluctant to do so for fear of the same happening to them.

When Commodus was brought down, Pertinax succeeded him but was almost immediately murdered for trying to rein in the Praetorian Guard (despite the term being used today for politically loyal diehards, the Guard probably killed more emperors than it saved). Didius Julianus won the auction for the purple, only to be crushed by the ruthless Septimius Severus.

Severus, whilst not renowned as a bastion of morality, did restore some measure of stability after winning the civil war. But his eldest son was as bad as Commodus (Antoninus Caracalla, who discovered that repeatedly threatening to murder your own bodyguard and then unjustly killing his brother does not enhance one’s life expectancy). With the sad exception of Alexander Severus, the Empire underwent great tumult in the Crisis of the Third Century and never again [in the West] had the prosperity, stability, and power it had enjoyed in the Golden Age.

In short, Marcus Aurelius buggered it up by nominating as his successor a lunatic.

Henry II was an imperious king who ruled over England and substantial territories in what is today France. He also had the short-termist constitutional delinquency Blair had in meddling with lopsided devolution (which went from killing Scottish nationalism stone dead to an independence referendum in a couple of decades), and was thoroughly inept at running his own family.

Henry had two problems. He was a poor father and he had a weird feudal relationship with the king of France. Henry was king of England, but also held territories such as Normandy and Aquitaine. Problem was this meant he was, as lord of some of his territories, a tenant-in-chief who owed fealty to the king of France (in the same way the Earl of Norfolk owed fealty to the king of England).

This was a bugger’s muddle and no mistake, because if France and England went to war (which did, very occasionally, happen) the king of France could theoretically call on the king of England to serve him in the war against the king of England.

At the same time, the king of England was the full equal of the king of France, as sovereign of a kingdom.

Henry II fudged this in a masterstroke of ill-conceived ambiguity of which the EU would be proud. He swore fealty in vague terms only for the French lands, and parcelled the continental territories off to his sons (his eldest, also called Henry, got Normandy, Richard got Aquitaine, Geoffrey got Brittany, and John got nothing which earnt him the nickname Lackland. He later was so fearsome in war he got a second nickname: Softsword, possibly making him the only king in English history to have two epithets, both of which were mocking).

However, this is where the first problem, of weak fatherhood, comes in. All his sons were ambitious and he was neither able/willing to promise them what was their due, nor was he powerful enough to overwhelm them into submission. After Young King Henry (his son, who was given the title but not the authority of a king during the reign of Henry II) died, Richard, then eldest, wanted to be named heir.

You would’ve thought an eldest son in a feudal society being named heir would be straightforward. But Henry II refused. Ultimately, Richard did inherit (he became the Lionheart) but not before the brothers united to fight against their father. Philip Augustus, the wily French king, played this sort of game very well, exploiting familial rivalry to weaken Henry II and siding with the rebellious sons (this was repeated when Richard was away on Crusade/captured and John rebelled).

Henry II died relatively young, worn out by stress and exhaustion, most of it brought on himself. Richard inherited anyway, but the prime beneficiary of Henry’s foolishness was the French king. John later lost practically all the continental possessions (it turns out the nobles were unwilling to fight for a king whose prime achievements were extortion and cruelty).

By different turns, Marcus Aurelius and Henry II caused serious damage to their realms through failure of succession. Marcus Aurelius conferred the purple on a murderous maniac, and Henry II needlessly prevaricated with the simplest of acknowledgements, causing unnecessary war. Both in their power could have easily averted these crises, the former by sticking to the adoptive principle, the latter by taking the obvious step of naming his eldest son as his heir.

This does, however, highlight an important point. The family dramas of clashing personalities which can make a home fraught are not limited to those of humble station, and, in a time when monarchs exercised true power, these things could and did cause war within and between nations.