1066: William the Conqueror & Harold

51K2y3ZvKCL._AA240_.jpgIn 1066 the French invaded England. No one really knows why because English food was terrible even then.

We’ll it was kind of the French. It was actually the Normons (an abbreviation for North Men), former Vikings that the French had bought off by giving them some costal property so that they would stop running around France making unwanted blond babies. Better to keep them all in one place was the thinking.

But soon the Normons wanted out. I guess living with the French sounded better than the actual experience. William, the leader of the Normons, thought he had just the place, a little island just 30 miles across the channel where there weren’t any Frenchmen to be found. The fact that there were other people there wasn’t of much concern since if there’s one thing that former Vikings knew, it was how to make room for yourself.

So, in 1066, William gets his boys together and off they go across the channel to introduce the barbarians to French fashion.

Now the king of the English (they weren’t called English yet but Anglos, Saxons, and such) was a heavy hitter named Harold who didn’t want a bunch of French buggers coming over and forcing everyone to wear berets. When he found out that William had just that thought he flew into a right tizzy-fit. He got all his other heavy hitters who were know as the House Carls and marched off to keep the French out. (The House Carls really were heavy hitters who’s favorite weapon was a two-handed Danish axe that could reportedly take off a horses head with a stroke.) 

Fast forward to the Battle of Hastings where we’ve got William on one side with his cavalry and Harold up on a hill with his horse-head-hewers ready to square off and play Dodge Ball with each others heads.

William’s smarter than he seems and he knows that the only way he can break Harold’s line is to get his men to charge down the hill where his guys on horses can really poke at them with their long spears.

And William’s plan works like a charm. Up charge the calvary, taunting the English with cries of ‘Your mothers dress off the shelf’ and such. Then William feigns a retreat knowing that that Englishmen seeing running French bums in front of them won’t be able to restrain themselves. And so it went. The French turned tail and the English ran right down the hill where Williams knights could get at them. They spent all morning poking the English with sharp things until they all ran away.

Harold didn’t see that of course because he took an arrow to the eyeball and died which was good for him since the Normans weren’t know for their hospitality at the time.

The French won and William became ‘The Conqueror’ and the first real King of England. This is why about 40% of modern English is actually derived from French and you can kind of recognize ‘Sacre Bleu!’ as “Sacred Blue!’ or ‘Oh, my heavens’.

While the French were the aristocracy up in the castle, the English were the peasants down in the dirt. So, you modern English ends up with an old Anglo word for the animal (cow and pig) that the peasants were working with and French words for the dish (beef and pork) that the French were stuffing their faces with up in the castle.

See, we really do owe it all to the French.

The Black Plague

515J6TR281L._AA240_.jpgOriginating in Asia long before bird flu, the Plague, or Black Death, killed one-third of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1350. In the squalid cities of medieval Europe, victims typically lived only a few days after the symptoms - vomiting, diarrhea, and black boils on the skin - first appeared.

The song ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ refers to the plague with the Rosie being a victim.

In many cities the Black Death not only killed huge numbers but totally destroyed law and order, pushing an entire civilization to the brink of collapse.

The consequences of the plague in European society were profound. Enraged Christians blamed Jews for the disease and the pogroms that followed the Black Death were among the worst anti-Semitic purges in history.

The plague cause many European Christians to question the Catholic Church and the existing political order. How could God permit such a cruel disease? Some disillusioned Europeans turned to fringe sects like the flagellants, named for the practice of whipping themselves. Respect for church authority declined and according to historians, the plague destroyed the feudal order of the Middle Ages and cleared the way for the Renaissance.

  • Scientists continue to debate the cause of the Black Death. The leading candidate, the bubonic plague, still exists but can be treated easily with antibiotics.
  • Although almost everyone who was exposed to the plague in the Middle Ages died, about 5 percent of the victims survived and some avoided contracting it entirely. Modern scientists believe the were protected by a rare genetic combination that gave them greater resistance to the germ.
  • After the Black Death, it took 4 centuries for Europe’s population to rebound to its pre-1347 levels.