I was once again very fortunate that The Citadel helped to provide some of the funds necessary for me to travel to Europe to complete my research this summer (for previous trips, see 2013 and 2011). What follows is an account of this year’s adventure, written in the form of daily diaries.
Things haven’t started off well. My flight from Charleston to Dulles was late. Significantly late. And I didn’t have a large layover in Dulles before I needed to board my flight to London.
In Charleston I checked my bag through to London. I wouldn’t normally do this — I pack for carry-on only travel for a reason — but the folks at United assured me that even with the tight connection my bag would make it onto the London flight. And I have to admit that the prospect of navigating that close transfer without my bigger bag was appealing. Besides, my Charleston flight was a small plane and I knew I would have had to tunnel-check the bag, which would mean needing to wait for it on arrival in Washington.
As it stands right now I don’t know if I made a wise choice. My flight from Charleston was inexplicably delayed. Boarding for my London flight began at 9:05 — at Terminal C. My flight from Charleston arrived at the gate at 9:21 — at Terminal A. I was one of the last off the plane (naturally), and as I was running across the Tarmac to begin my cross-airport hustle I could see the crowd of folks waiting to receive their tunnel-checked bags … and the three ground crew trying in vain to open the stuck hatch of the plane’s cargo hold.
When they got it open, I don’t know. Whether my bag made it to my flight, I don’t know.
The good news is that I made it. It was a full-on sprint but I made it on board with three minutes to spare.
Relief, to be sure, though it is a bit stressful knowing that I may arrive in London to drive to Wales for one of the most important presentations of my life … and I may have little but the clothes on my back.
Sadly, things took another turn for the worse when I tried to get some shut-eye. My EconomyPlus seat is broken. No reclining. So I’m sitting ramrod straight, doubtful to get sleep, quite assured to get a sore back and neck and hip.
Some ibuprofen and muscle balm would no doubt help. I even brought some.
In my bag.
Bag didn’t make it.
Indeed it will not make it for a day if not two: as I was standing at a baggage claim in Heathrow, my bag was still sitting in Dulles. They’ll send it on an overnight flight tonight, but of course at that point I’ll be in Wales.
Apologies, they said. Maybe you’ll have the bag by Friday?
Oh. And meanwhile I will be giving one of the most important lectures of my life.
I said some not very kind things in my head, knowing that they wouldn’t change the facts.
Kelly DeVries (of Loyola University Maryland, who will be my travel companion for much of this trip) had meanwhile flown in from Italy, and I met him at the car rental. We cursed Loki then hit the road.
Arriving in Swansea we stopped at a Sainsbury’s, where I bought a few toiletry essentials and a new outfit — I am not about to give my talk in the same clothes I wore across the Atlantic.
We will be staying with John France, the very medieval historian whom this Swansea conference is honoring. He and his wife are wonderful folks. Very warm and kind. John took Kelly and I on a walk on the Gower Peninsula, across the cliffs of Tor Point and the sand-covered remains of a medieval town and castle.
So things are improving.
And tomorrow is the talk. Fingers crossed.
Slept really well. A solid eight hours.
And, remarkably, the clothes I purchased at Sainsbury’s fit fairly well: the only real trouble I had was the fact that the “removable belt” on my old convertible pants — which I planned to use on my new pants — was sewed onto the pant. It took a bit to rip the stitching.
Today was the big day: the first public presentation of my alternative site of the Battle of Crécy. The plan was for me to present the new location, and then Kelly would present the tactics of the battle in light of my theory. The organizers of the symposium gave us a full session of our own (typically there are three papers per session), and they also honored us with a prime time: after three sessions of post-graduate student papers, we were leading off the “Main Conference.”
Because we have been so busy, Kelly and I never had time to practice the presentation, or really to do much more than talk about what general areas we would each cover.
I’m pleased to say that despite the obstacles it was very much a success. There was shock, denial, consideration, and then general acceptance. One audience member referred to my part as a “tour de force.”
So that doesn’t suck.
Alas, the man whose book we have so very much blown up didn’t show up until just after our talk. So he didn’t get to hear it — though he has heard of it now, to be sure!
After that I was on auto-pilot through the rest of the day’s lectures. We had a wonderful meal at an Indian restaurant in Swansea to round off the day, however, followed by a sunset drive around the coastline through the Mumbles. This is a gorgeous part of Wales, without doubt.
Returning to John’s house, we found my bag awaiting me: driven by courier up from Heathrow. A nice surprise!
So another day of lectures tomorrow, and another evening here at John France’s house, and then we drive back to London the next morning, likely taking a wandering route through some sites.
Today was an academic day with not much to report to the larger world. The conference began at 9 in the morning and ended at 7:30 at night — a long stretch to have one’s brain in the “on” position.
I learned a great deal and met some remarkable folks, several of whom were wanting to meet me due to my books on Brunanburh or Owain Glyndwr. Always a nice ego boost.
We had a wonderful dinner after the conference was over. The conference organizers had a reserved table at the George, a well-known pub overlooking Mumbles Bay. The food was fair — my wild boar and chorizo burger promised more than it delivered — but the company was absolutely terrific and the atmosphere unmatched. For better or worse, these kinds of professional connections simply cannot be made without traveling across the Atlantic.
I slept in for a bit this morning, which was much needed after the late night. We then spent the morning hanging out with John and his family: his son and grand kids were wonderful.
Afterward, John took Kelly and me to Oystermouth Castle, which was absolutely wonderful and educational … not that a castle could be anything less! I gained quite a few more slides for lectures, in addition to a better understanding of the medieval dynamics in this part of Wales. A delicious lunch later, we said our goodbyes and Kelly and I drove back toward London.
Along the way back to London we stopped at Caerphilly Castle, one of the most remarkable that I’ve ever seen. I took many pictures, as it is an extraordinarily designed fortification.
A couple hours later, we were on the road again. We dropped the car off at Heathrow, hopped the train to London, and then shuffled lines through the Underground until we reached the University of London’s International Hall where we’re staying the next couple of nights — halfway between the British Library and the British Museum.
So I’m essentially in Heaven.
Ah… London. It’s such an amazing city. Kelly and I are mainly in town for the manuscripts at the British Library, but we won’t be able to get to them until tomorrow. That means today we’re tourists.
Well, tourists insofar as we don’t have specific elements of research scheduled for the day. But truth be told, you can’t be working in our fields in Europe and not be researching at essentially every turn. The history and the culture are everywhere.
Our plan was to spend a good chunk of the day at the British Museum, since today is the last day of the special Viking Exhibition, but when Kelly checked online he found that tickets were sold out.
Oh well, we figured, we’ll go to the Museum anyway. It is, after all, the British Museum.
Happily, after our short walk over, I took a shot at trying to charm my way into a couple of tickets.
No need. Tickets were available on site and we got to go to the Viking Exhibition after all. No charming necessary, and it was full of awesome.
And you know what’s even better than seeing the Viking Exhibition? Seeing it and then going up a couple flights of stairs to see the Lewis Chessmen, the Franks Casket, the Sutton Hoo treasures, the Cuerdale Hoard, and a hundred other priceless medieval wonders.
And what’s better than all that?
Popping over from there to the British Library to look at the Beowulf Manuscript in the flesh.
Oh yes. A good day. Hiked down to have some bangers and mash at a pub in Covent Gardens, then took a long look at the Thames before marching all the way back to the room (with a pint or two here and there along the way). My feet are aching, but it was a marvelous day.
Tomorrow it’s back to the British Library — this time to examine three unique manuscripts with material on the Battle of Crécy. So tonight I’m trying to get into paleography mode in preparation.
Superlatives abound. I know. But today was another really solid day. It’s good to have those when finances dictate such short stays.
The plan was to work through three manuscript sources for Crécy at the British Library.
That’s an awful lot to manage in a day, which is surely why Kelly complicated matters by tracking down a fourth manuscript source — 30 minutes before the Library closed.
It’s a cool source, too: written in 1350 by Philip the duke of Orléans to ransom a French noble seized at the Battle of Crécy. Given the amount of time at hand, we resorted to me transcribing and editing in my head so I could read the Old French text aloud as Kelly scrambled to copy it down.
If I was tired at 4:30, my brain had completely blown a gasket at 5:00.
But of course that’s still early, even if the Library was closing. So we took the Underground to London Bridge: a short walk later, I’d made my first pilgrimage to the tomb of John Gower — only 9 days before I’m scheduled to give a paper at the International John Gower Conference in Rochester, New York.
I probably should finish writing that paper, now that I think about it.
From Southwark Cathedral we walked along the Thames to see the new Globe Theatre (of Shakespeare fame) and the new Tate Gallery (where Waterhouse’s “Lady of Shalott” is). Then we stood on the newest bridge across the Thames, between the Tate and St Paul’s, marveling and talking medieval.
During a long meal of Greek food and red wine we took a stab at translating the new source. It is very interesting. Kelly will take on the formal translation back at the dorms, and likely we will need to hit the Library again tomorrow to re-check things.
Then it’s off to the Continent tomorrow afternoon: the Chunnel to Brussels in Belgium, renting a car, then driving down to St-Riquier in France.
I’m absolutely spent, but the adventure has just begun!
After working over the translation of the ransom note Kelly found yesterday, it was clear that another stop at the British Library was needed. As a result we spent the morning and the early afternoon going through it all again, trying to root out all the problems we had. For a single scrap of vellum, it was a troublesome (but fascinating) bit of work.
When we were done there was just enough time for a quick trip through the Treasures of the Library, this time seeing two of the four copies of the Magna Carta, plus the Canterbury copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and a number of other remarkable volumes.
Crossing the street we went into St. Pancras Station, where we boarded the Eurostar train for a quick trip through the Chunnel to first Lille in France and then Brussels in Belgium.
It’s a bit odd to take a train through France to Belgium to rent a car to drive to France, but tickets were cheaper that way, and we will be fairly close to the Belgium border.
The car ride from Brussels to France was peaceful. St-Riquier, where we are staying, is lovely. But even better is where we are staying in town: from my window I could throw a tennis ball and hit a 13th-century belfry, which stands across the town square from a famed 7th-century abbey that features a massive and beautiful 15th-century facade.
The “cottage” we’ve rented is spacious and modern while wrapped in far older architectural features. It’s very well done.
And tonight for dinner I had the best crepe I’ve had in my life while sharing a bottle of red wine from Bordeaux.
So we’ve made it to France. It’s 1:00 in the morning now, and I’m hoping I’ll manage some sleep despite my excitement and nerves: tomorrow we will drive the few miles it’ll take to reach my proposed site for the Battle of Crécy, one of the most famous battles in history.
What I will see there, I can only guess.
I was right.
I don’t think I realized how worried I was that I might actually be wrong until Kelly and I walked my proposed site location … and found the smoking gun.
First, I need to emphasize how very much we are going against tradition in relocating the engagement. The Battle of Crécy was fought on 26 August 1346. And from at least 1757 — if not long before — the site has been considered to be northeast of the town of Crécy. Instead, I am suggesting a site considerably south of Crécy.
I made my suggestion based on study of the primary sources, an understanding of medieval military tactics, an examination of the ground through Google Earth, and research of the area, and I was able to convince Kelly that I had located the site. Together, we were confident enough to present it to the Swansea Symposium last week.
But we hadn’t been to the actual field. We hadn’t walked it to see what was really there on the ground.
Now we have. And you know what? I think I’m right. I was confident before. Now I’m pretty damn near certain.
668 years after the battle, we now know where thousands of men died in one of the more gruesome conflicts in history.
I have an odd feeling of simultaneous elation and sorrow — a happiness for knowing I found the field, and a sad recognition of knowing what happened upon it.
As I said, I am egotistical enough to have thought I was right before, but I still had a niggling doubt. Worse, I felt that if I was wrong — however slim that chance might be — I would be taking Kelly’s formidable reputation down with me.
So it’s thrilling and relieving to say, having walked the site, that I’m almost assuredly correct.
The reason for my surety — wholeheartedly shared by Kelly despite my efforts to dissuade him via devil’s advocacy — is that in walking my proposed field we found a feature that is a perfect fit for the battle as reported in the sources, a feature that simply cannot be put on the traditional site.
I have no words for my amazement. But it was sobering to look out on the area with Kelly and for just the two of us to know that we alone (for now) knew where thousands of men had died seven centuries ago.
The rest of the day was spent visiting sites rumored to have a connection to the battle — mostly for photographic documentation purposes — but frankly that doesn’t matter much.
What matters now is that the field is found.
After yesterday’s high, there ought to have been a corresponding low today.
Happily, there was none.
The first part of the day was spent retracing the path of the English to the field of battle, from the point where Edward III crossed the Somme to the new proposed battlefield, after which we made yet another examination of the site. Everything is still lining up even better than we anticipated.
We then drove to Amiens, home of the second Gothic cathedral ever built — and arguably still the finest. This was the place where the French stopped both before and after the battle.
After many pictures, we watched the US-Germany World Cup match at a bar until hunger overtook us and we were forced to eat a delicious French meal. Alas.
Since we had already traced the path of the English to the field of battle, we now needed to trace their path away from it. This involved the examination of a hillside looking for castle ruins, along with several stops at some remarkable churches as we made our way in Edward’s wake toward Calais.
We were pretty far north by the time we finished, so we decided to visit Ieper (Ypres) in Belgium — as one does. This region was decimated in WW1, and just as it was recovering the town (which was once one of the most prosperous and populated in Europe) was absolutely leveled in WW2.
Remarkably, the town decided to respond to the destruction by rebuilding the old center of town (including all the wonderful medieval bits) to replicate the pre-war look as much as possible.
The results are nothing short of impressive. The “medieval” cloth hall is back, as is the cathedral and belfry. And like just about every place I’ve visited in Belgium the town was clean, vibrant, and happy.
I love Belgian food and drink, so we found an excellent establishment with Belgian stew (made with Trappist Rochefort beer), good frites, and Kriek Mystic beer — one of my favorites.
All in all, it made an excellent end to our northern tour.
In a sense, that word says it all. But to record some details for posterity…
Our first business of the day was to drive to St-Denis, where one finds the basilica housing most of the royals of France. I’d actually never been there, though it’s quite important for matters medieval in Western Europe. Given the book we are researching, we took particular interest in the effigies of those who died at Crécy or were involved in it — including the French king, Philippe VI. We also took note of a few effigies that date from the same period as the engagement in order to observe the kind of armor that the nobles would have worn on the field. It’s remarkable what one can learn from an effigy.
Since we were on the outskirts of Paris anyway, we figured we ought to visit the city. And that meant, of course, a visit to the Louvre.
I could spend days in the Louvre and not get bored, but we didn’t have that option. Instead we did our own highlights: Mona Lisa (because of course), some Michelangelo, Venus de Milo, a mix of other Renaissance masters, the law code of Hammurabi … and pretty much the entirety of the medieval collections. 🙂
A steady rain put an end to our plan to do a speed-visit of some other locations, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since our next visit was to the Grand Palais.
To explain why this next stop was awesome I have to step back a few days to tell something that happened at the British Museum: after we visited the Vikings exhibit and ran through pretty much the entirety of the medieval collections — sense a theme? — it dawned on me that I was pretty sure the Meroë Augustus was at the British Library. It’s not nearly as famous as other artifacts they have — like, you know, the Rosetta Stone — but this bronze head from a statue of Augustus Caesar has long fascinated me. In fact, I’m planning to feature it in the second book of Shards of Heaven, which I’ll be starting to compose this summer. How cool, I thought, to see the actual object in person at the very time I’m outlining the novel.
Anyway, I thought I remembered that it was a British Museum piece and so we went looking for it and sure enough it was just such a piece … but it wasn’t currently at the British Museum. It was on loan to a very special exhibition commemorating the 2,000th anniversary of the death of Augustus Caesar.
And where was that exhibition? In Paris at the Grand Palais.
The coincidence was so fortunate that when we decided we were going to Paris today we decided that going to the Augustus exhibition was a priority. Just on principle.
And it was amazing. It was without doubt the best laid-out exhibition I have ever seen, and the material they’d brought together from around the world was jaw-dropping. We were both just stunned.
And yes — oh yes indeed — I got to see the Meroë Augustus. And it was positively exquisite. That alone was worth the price of admission, but the whole of the exhibition was perfect.
It was still raining when we finished, so we took the Metro from the Grand Palais to the Pont Neuf, crossing the Seine as evening approached. We then made our way to Kelly’s favorite restaurant in Paris: Le Rose en France.
It’s on the Ile de la Cite, right in the heart of things, but it’s actually on a quiet Parisian side street, and the food is truly magnificent.
Plus, as an added bonus, it looks out over the square where the Templar Knights were burned at the stake in 1314.
Rounding out the evening was the two-hour drive north back to St-Riquier.
My feet are in a perpetual ache at this point, but my heart is glad.
And I anticipate a far more quiet day tomorrow.
It rained through the morning and the greater part of the afternoon, which is just as well, since we slept in and then attacked some translation and interpretation work in light of the discoveries of the past days.
Late in the day, the rains subsided and we returned to the battlefield for some final contemplations. It was extremely beneficial to stand at the scene of the action, talking through our many speculations and determinations. Our confidence in this new location and new narrative continues to grow.
We next visited the St-Riquier cemetery, where a number of servicemen from World War One are buried. It was doubly appropriate given this year’s anniversaries.
We now have a favorite restaurant in St-Riquier, and so we returned there for a final meal and some excellent wine.
More research and then bed. It is remarkable what we have discovered in so short a time. Being in Europe makes such a difference.
Today was a traveling day, and it should have been quiet.
Should have been.
The day began as we drove back to Brussels and dropped off the car. We timed things just right to catch the Chunnel train to the UK … only to find that Belgium’s train network is on strike.
As a result, we had to stand in a long line to catch one of the few buses that Belgium apparently has, to ride to Lille in France (which Kelly and I had passed by in the car on the way to Brussels), to get on the train from there to London … or so the Eurostar folks hoped. When we first got in line in Brussels our arrival in London was estimated at “probably today.”
So it was that three hours after arriving in Brussels we got on board our bus for Lille and entered rush-hour traffic. Yee-haw.
At 8pm we reached Lille. At 9 we boarded the last Chunnel train of the day — so the arrival time in London became “definitely today.”
The train inexplicably stopped twice on the way out of France, so that we arrived in London 40 minutes late … for that scheduled arrival, that is. The actual delay for us was five hours after our original arrival time.
Kelly was planning to grab a train to Leeds, and I have no idea if he managed to make any kind of connection or not. We parted ways in London as I grabbed a very late on-the-go dinner at the train station and then made my way to the Underground, which I rode on the long-haul out to Heathrow.
I arrived at Heathrow and at a run was able to jump on the last shuttle bus headed to my hotel … at 11:40.
So I’ve made it.
Tomorrow I go back to Heathrow for my flight back to the Newark to catch a flight to Rochester for the Gower Conference.
I really ought to work on the paper for that.
I made it to Heathrow for my departure about 30 minutes faster than I anticipated, which allowed me to sit down for a pleasant breakfast. It was a nice way to start what would prove to be a long day of travel.
The flight to Newark was without worry, and I zipped through customs.
Alas, my flight to Rochester was delayed by 4 hours.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, I think. While in the airport I checked the program for the Gower Conference and thus learned — much to my surprise — that my presentation was moved up 24 hours. So instead of having tomorrow to finish it, I wrote it in the airport and on the flight to Rochester.
All done now.
I’m staying with Russell and Ruth Peck, which is wonderful: in addition to being my former dissertation director, Russell is a good friend. It’s great seeing them again.
My Gower paper went very well. Several compliments. I met more scholars and made more connections, but I must admit that my brain is at 50% working load now. It’s been a long couple of weeks.
Today wrapped up the Gower Conference and signaled my return — at long last — to Charleston.
With one more hurdle: Hurricane Arthur.
Around noon I received a note from United Airlines informing me that my flight from Rochester to Dulles would be so delayed that I would miss my flight from Dulles to Charleston — and because of the craziness of the hurricane hitting the East Coast I could not find an alternative flight to Charleston before 5pm tomorrow. This is a bit of a problem, since tomorrow at 2pm I’m supposed to be flying out of Charleston on a family vacation to Colorado.
End result: a flight to Charlotte, which arrived at around 11pm. From there I rented a car and drove the remaining distance to Charleston.
So it’s 2am, and I’m back.
And in 12 hours — at least a few of which I’ll be sleeping through, I hope! — I’ll leave to start the next adventure …