Monday, February 4, 2019

New Biography: The Daring Life of The Ancient Chinese Vigilante, Guo Xie

(Man sharpening a sword, hanging scroll (14th-17th century), color on silk, 170.7 x 111 cm. Located at the Palace Museum. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Guo Xie was a contemporary of Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), and they both lived during the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE). Although Guo Xie was not from a noble or wealthy background, he became one of the most famous men of his day. Sima Qian met the man in person and (unlike many other officials of the Han Dynasty) thought very highly of Guo Xie. With brutal honesty, Sima Qian described him as a short and ugly man, whose speech was not at all charismatic. Yet, through daring and vigilante justice, Guo Xie became a folk hero of the Chinese masses.

Continue reading about Guo Xie's remarkable life, HERE.

New Biography: The Bold Tale Of Jarl Einar Of Orkney


(Jomsvikings at the Battle of Svolder, by Nils Bergslien (1853–1928), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Jarl Rognvald was one of the Norwegian chieftains that aligned with Harald Finehair (r. 860-940), the first king to spread his influence over all regions of Norway. The last vestige of Norwegian resistance against Harald’s rule was crushed in the Battle of Hafrsfjord, which was dated to have occurred in 872 by medieval historians, but now is believed to have taken place possibly as late as 900. Jarl Rognvald became one of Finehair’s staunchest and most powerful supporters, and the jarl was greatly rewarded for his loyalty. According to the Norwegian-Icelandic tradition, King Harald gave Rognvald control of North More, South More and Romsdal. In addition to that, Finehair also offered the jarl control of Orkney and Shetland after Rognvald’s son, Ivar, was killed during a campaign to claim those islands for Norway and to clear them of disloyal Vikings. Jarl Rognvald, however, was content with his land in Norway and decided to transfer control of Orkney and Shetland to his brother, Sigurd.

Although Sigurd proved to be a capable leader, even expanding his territory into parts of Scotland, he unfortunately died of an infection. Sigurd’s sickly son, Guthorm, inherited control of the islands, but he, too, died after only a year. When Guthorm died childless, control of Orkney passed back to Jarl Rognvald of More. Yet, once again, he did not want to keep the lands for himself. This time, Rognvald decided to give the islands to one of his sons. At the time, the jarl was said to have had five living sons—Hrolf the Walker (who would become a duke of Normandy), Thorir, Hallad, Hrollaug and Einar. Rognvald eventually chose Hallad to become the new ruler of the islands.

Hallad quickly became disillusioned in Orkney. Beleaguered by Viking raids and annoyed by local grumbling farmers, Hallad eventually grew homesick and returned to Norway, abandoning the islands. In his absence, Viking crews once more overran the region and the islands were virtually cut off from Norwegian control. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, two Vikings from Denmark took over the region. Their names were supposedly Thorir Tree-Beard and Kalf Scurvy, and they set up their main camp in Orkney.

When Rognvald heard that Hallad had abandoned Orkney and that the region was now occupied by Vikings—Danish Vikings no less—the jarl became enraged and called a meeting with his sons (excluding Hallad). At the time, Hrolf the Walker was apparently away on an expedition, so only Thorir, Hrollaug and Einar spoke with their father. Rognvald was said to have undervalued Einar (his mother was allegedly a slave), so the jarl ignored him and asked only Thorir and Hrollaug which of them wanted to reclaim Orkney from the Vikings. When both sons dryly stated that they would follow their father’s wishes, but did not show much enthusiasm for the prospect, Einar stepped forward and confidently volunteered himself for the task. 

Continue reading about the exciting life of Jarl Einar, HERE.

Monday, January 14, 2019

New Article: A Small Dog Reportedly Led To The Death Of Jarl Rognvald Brusason Of Orkney


(Image of Lancelot from BL Royal 14 E III, f. 146, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and picryl.com)

In the year 1030, Rognvald Brusason, son of Jarl Brusi of Orkney, fought on the side of King Olaf II of Norway (Saint Olaf) at the Battle of Stiklestad. Rognvald had first joined Olaf’s retinue as a political hostage, meant to keep his father in line, but he grew to become a well-respected and trusted member of the king’s court. Unfortunately, Saint Olaf was killed during the battle, but Rognvald was credited with saving the slain king’s half-brother, a fifteen-year-old future king who would come to be known as Harald the Ruthless. Rognvald, Harald and other supporters of the late Saint Olaf fled to the lands of the Kievan Rus. Harald went on to join the Varangian Guard in service to the emperors of Constantinople, while Rognvald became a respected mercenary working under the kings of Kiev. Magnus, a son of Saint Olaf, was also present with the Rus. When Magnus “the Good” was invited back to Norway to become king in 1035, Rognvald Brusason followed him back to the kingdom and became a close acquaintance of the king.
While staying in Kiev or upon his return to Norway, Rognvald discovered that his father, Brusi, had died and that Rognvald’s uncle, Jarl Thorfinn, had claimed Brusi’s land for himself. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, the Jarls of Orkney not only ruled their title’s namesake, but also administered Shetland and Caithness. Jarl Thorfinn was also reportedly expanding his influence into the Hebrides at that time. Once King Magnus was firmly back in control of Norway, Rognvald brought up the topic of Orkney and asked the king to help him claim his inheritance from Jarl Thorfinn. King Magnus agreed to help, naming Rognvald as a jarl of Orkney, as well giving him a small fleet of three ships.
Inheritance and division of rule had long been a tense issue in the jarldom of Orkney. During the reign of Saint Olaf, the jarldom had been divided into thirds. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Jarl Brusi (Rognvald’s father) ruled one-third of the jarldom, Jarl Thorfinn ruled another third, and the last third belonged to the Norwegian crown. The kings of Norway, however, gave their own third to the jarl of their choice, making that chosen jarl of Orkney dominant in the region. Saint Olaf reportedly chose Jarl Brusi as his governor of the royal third in Orkney, yet Jarl Thorfinn was given control of the royal third when King Canute sent Saint Olaf into exile in 1028. In keeping with the tradition of Norwegian kings giving control of their third of Orkney to their favorite jarl, King Magnus sent Rognvald not only with the authority to claim his father’s land, but appointed him as administrator of the royal third, as well.
Read about how Rognvald fared against his uncle, and his about his odd death, HERE.

New Biography: The Promising Life And Bizarre Death Of King Edmund I Of England


(Miniature of King Edmund Iof England from the MS Royal 14 B VI, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Edmund I was the half-brother and successor of King Æthelstan (r. 925-939). It was a tough act to follow, as Æthelstan was the first king of Wessex to claim authority over the whole of England. Yet, instead of being lost in his brother’s long shadow, Edmund I learned from Æthelstan’s success. He even played a leading role in one of the key events in Æthelstan’s reign—the Battle of Brunanburh (c. 937), in which the forces of England triumphed over a coalition of Britons from Strathclyde, Scandinavians from Ireland and York, as well as the army of Scotland, led personally by King Constantine II. King Æthelstan died only two years after that decisive battle, passing the baton of rule to his eighteen-year-old brother, Edmund.

Continue reading about the short, but admirable, reign of Edmund, HERE.

New Biography: The Wild Tale Of Asiaticus


(a resting gladiator painted by José Moreno Carbonero (1860–1942), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

The Vitellii were a family of vague origins that had risen to a position of prominence by the 1st century. Whether the Vitellii were founded by an ancient Latin king or a poor freedman cobbler (both origins were recorded by Suetonius), the family eventually joined the senatorial class and received distinguished government and military appointments. One such high-status member of the Vitellii family, named Lucius, married a noblewoman by the name of Sestilia, and from their union was born Aulus Vitellius, a future emperor of Rome. By the time of Vitellius’ birth in year 12, his family had become considerably wealthy. The family fortune allowed Aulus Vitellius to enjoy chariot races and dicing with wild abandon—these pastimes would get him into the good graces of Caligula (r. 37-41), Claudius (r. 41-54) and Nero (r. 54-68). The wealth of the Vitellii also meant that the family could own slaves. The name of one of these slaves was Asiaticus, and his life would become an extraordinarily wild ride.

Continue reading about the remarkable rise and fall of Asiaticus, HERE.