Ambrosius, Arthur, Arthurian, bard, Battle of Camlann, Camlann, Cei, Coroticus, Gawain, Gereint, Guinevere, Gwalchmai, Gwenhwyfar, Historia Brittonum, Hoel, Hywel, Kay, King Arthur, Meleagant, Melwas, Modred, Mordred, Perceval, Peredur, Rion, Sub-Roman Britain, Tristan, Urien, Yvain
I grew up with Camelot, a movie that chronicled the life of the famous king. It gave him Late Medieval clothes, perfect complexion and hair, civilized manners, etc., etc. First Knight was even less realistic in the level of sophistication it portrayed as a part of fifth-century Britain. King Arthur attempted to give the flavor of the period but missed so many important details.
The reality was better in some respects than is portrayed in the movies. A king in Arthur’s time had power, absolutely over every person, animal, and plant under his rule. He had wealth, with silver torques about his forearms, rings, even golden shoes. He had his choice of women and horses (both considered items more than beings at the time). However, there were some significant drawbacks to his position besides the threat of others usurping his throne.
A king’s power, wealth, and standing all depended on cattle raids. That meant going to other halls and stealing, often while fighting off the neighboring war-band. Activities like that might sound very much like something kids would do, or something like the sparring, rugby, or even football adults have as a part of their regular activities, but kings and their men played the game with spears, shields, and occasionally swords. Even if a king had better armor and a stronger sword than his men, that did not make him immune to injuries. And, in a world where maladies that involved the microscopic were associated more with the supernatural than any tactile organisms, the simplest cut could get infected and kill a person.
Battles would also have meant an increased chance of dislocations and sprains. The medieval world had no chiropractors, no basic knowledge of wrapping and cooling a strain to the joints. If a king was lucky enough to find that he was able to heal himself, great. More often, however, he was not that lucky. A man of thirty, be he farmer or king, might well have a limp, a bad shoulder, and less overall mobility than someone ten years his junior. He might well feel more like a man of fifty. Hunting, another common activity, would have been another pasttime that could speed up the aging process for a king.
But most of a king’s time would have been spent at home. As the center of social life in his kingdom, his hall would see the comings and goings of every entertainer, merchant, messenger, and religious person who traveled through the kingdom. This meant he had access to the latest information and the best goods. However, in a time when communicable diseases could run unchecked through a country without sewage or any real concept of cleanliness (baths were only taken on rare occasion), it also meant that each visitor who arrived at the doorstep was a potential carrier of plague.
Feasting at his hall was a common means of getting the men together and reestablishing bonds of loyalty. As Professor Alcock and other archeologists have noted, they seemed to center around meats and alcohol. Without proper ruffage, this diet likely began to cause problems for a king before he turned thirty, leading to constipation and then more serious digestive issues as the years went on. The alcohol that was present, consumed to excess, would cause liver issues long before then. The kings of the period lived hard and died young, but not in battle. More often than not they succumbed to old age before they were forty.
Just curious, I have been considering putting together a book giving a little more detail about some of the subjects discussed in these blogs, e.g. development of characters, the less glamourous details of everyday life. Would that pique any interest?