History

Medieval Whip Used by Self-Flagellating Monks Found

Found at a British Abbey, the copper wire, braided together, turned to be part of a whip used by monks for self-flagellation. Continue reading →

British archaeologists have solved the mystery over some ancient pieces of woven copper-alloy wires that were unearthed at a Medieval monastery.

Found in 2014 at Rufford Abbey, Nottinghamshire, the braided-together length of copper wire, turned to be part of a whip or cat-o-nine-tail used by monks for self-flagellation.

According to Nottinghamshire County Council, the true meaning of the 14th century wire was realized after comparing it with a similar metal scourge found at another British monastery.

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"This is a fascinating discovery which helps us to build a picture of what life could have been like for the monks living in the Abbey during the dark days of the Black Death and its aftermath," Councillor John Knight, committee chairman for culture, said in a statement.

The Black Death plague ravaged the country between 1348 and 1350, causing the decline of Rufford Abbey which lost much of its income from the wool industry. Because of the Abbey's dire financial situation, various kings excused the Abbey from paying taxes during this time.

The whip is one of only four uncovered in the country. It would have been used in this period by the Cistercian monks in an attempt to ward off the Black Death, or as an act of penance to take the population's sins upon themselves.

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The monks lived in austerity - they would rise at 4.30 a.m. to take part in church services and then labor in the fields for long hours.

Despite the use of the self-flagellating whip, historical records reveal that some Rufford monks strayed from the monastic vows. They include Brother William, arrested for the murder of Brother Robert in 1280, and two monks who were charged with the £200 ($285) robbery of Thomas De Holme.

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According to Medieval specialist Glyn Coppack, monastic copper scourges are very rare.

"This is an exceptional find," he said.

The remains of the copper whip in a protective box and a modern recreation of what the whip would have looked like.

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of hundreds of medieval scholars, all fallen upon hard times, on the site what is now a Cambridge College.

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Containing more than 1,000 people, the large graveyard was discovered three years ago beneath the Old Divinity School at St John's College during refurbishment of the Victorian building. Details of the finding have only now been made public.

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The archaeologists uncovered 400 perfectly preserved human skeletons, along with the disarticulated and fragmentary remains of up to 1,000 more individuals. "It's one of the largest medieval hospital osteoarcheological assemblages from the British Isles," dig director Craig Cessford, from the university’s department of archaeology and anthropology, said.

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Mostly dating from the 13th to 15th centuries, the remains lay in burials belonging to the Hospital of St John the Evangelist. The building, from which St John's College takes its name, stood opposite the graveyard until 1511 and was established to care for "poor scholars and other wretched persons." Pregnant women, lepers, the wounded, cripples and the insane were all specifically excluded from its care.

People were laid to rest without coffins, and even without shrouds, confirming the cemetery was mainly for the poor. Jewellery and personal items, including a crucifix, were only present in a handful of burials. "Items were found in graves that might represent grave-goods, but their positions were ambiguous and it is equally possible that they represent residual material from earlier activity at the site," Cessford said.

Some of the skeletons also did not fit their graves. Here is shown a skeleton found in a grave which was too large for the body. "This suggests that some, but not all of the graves may have been dug in advance of being needed," Cessford wrote in the Archaeological Journal. "One possibility is that this occurred prior to the winter, when ground conditions would have potentially made digging graves considerably more difficult," he added.

Anthropological examinations of the remains that could be identified revealed there was a roughly equal gender balance, with the majority of individuals having died between around 25 and 45 years old. The archaeologists also noted the complete absence of infants, normally expected in a medieval hospital. No evidence of the Black Death was found among the remains. Most of the skeletons did not show signs of serious illnesses and conditions that would have required medical attention.

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