Medieval literature was full of the exploits of great heroes, some entirely fictional, others based on largely historical figures. This issue of Medieval Warfare magazine looks at some of those heroes, in some cases looking at their actual exploits, in others examining how they were portrayed in legend.
The earlier figure to be examined is Theoderic the Great, one of the most successful Gothic rules, and a king who briefly suggested that the Roman world could survive under outside rulers. Later in the Middle Ages a legendary version of Theoderic became an example of the successful king, most famously as Dietrich in the Nibelungenlied.
Only a little later was the story of Roland, one of Charlemagne's followers. In real life he was a fairly minor nobleman who was killed by Christian Basques as Charlemagne retreated from an unsuccessful expedition into Spain. In legend he became the hero of the Chanson de Roland, which told of an epic battle against Muslim foes, followed by an equally fictitious victory by Charlemagne in person. This is an interesting article, looking at both the legendary and historical battles.
Not all of the articles look at people - one looks at the Grunwald Swords, given to the Polish and Lithuanian leaders by the Teutonic Knights as a taunt just before the Knights were defeated at Grunwald. The article examines how the swords went on to be a symbol of Polish independence.
King Arthur almost has to be included, and there is an interesting article on the earlier mentions of him and his period with a good analysis of the late Roman period in Britain, the time in which any real Arthur would have operated.
Next we look at a forgotten hero - William of Kensham, the leader of a guerrilla band during the French invasion of southern England of 1216-17 (the war between King John and Prince Louis of France, with most of the English nobility supporting Louis). William played a major part in preventing the French from feeling safe in the Weald and along the south coast and was well rewarded at the time. The author suggests that he might have been one inspiration for the tales of Robin Hood, rather ironically given that he was fighting for King John, and probably even visited his court at Nottingham as an ally.
A more mysterious legend is that of 'Prester John', said to have ruled a massive Christian empire somewhere to the east of the Islamic lands. This was a popular legend during the Middle Ages, and the author suggests a link to the Qara Khitai, who did inflict a defeat on the Great Seljuks at about the right time, and tolerated Nestorian Christians in their empire. He then traces the later development of the myth, including its transfer from Central Asia to north Africa and in particular to Ethiopia.
Finally we look at Andreas Baumkircher, now portrayed as one of Austria's military heroes, but at the time a 'new man' who made his name serving the Emperor Frederick III before falling out with him and eventually being executed by him after a failed revolt.
Away from the theme there is an interesting account of Buckingham's revolt, the first uprising against Richard III, and one that included some of his own early allies. Buckingham failed, but the fact that he rebelled so soon after playing a major role in bringing Richard to power shows how quickly the new king alienated his potential allies. There is also a look at two impressive buildings in the Syrian desert - Qasr a-Hayr West and East, often described as castles, but probably more multipurpose government buildings of the Umayyad period, once surrounded by large gardens irrigated from distant reservoirs.
Larger than life: Historical introduction
Theoderic the Great: The ancient warrior and his medieval legacy
The death of Roland: The Battle of Roncevaux Pass
The Grunwald Swords: Blades of victory, symbols of freedom
Dux Bellorum, Comes Brittaniarum?: The Arthurian legend in light of military history
William of Kensham: Hero of the resistance
The legend of Prester John: A mysterious letter to the Christian West
Andreas Baumkircher: An Austrian Giant cut short
Qasr al-Hayr: Mysterious heritage amidst the Syrian Desert
Buckingham's Rebellion: The uprising that threatened Richard III's throne
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