Saturday 28 May 2016

Camels in early medieval western Europe: beasts of burden & tools of ritual humiliation

The aim of the following post is simply to collect together some of the references to camels in early medieval Europe, where they seem to have been used as both beasts of burden and a means of humiliating one's enemies, the latter perhaps being inspired by Late Roman/Byzantine practice.

A line of dancing camels, aka an illustration for Genesis 24, from the eleventh-century Old English Hexateuch, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B IV, f. 39r (image: British Library).

There is now a fairly substantial body of archaeological evidence showing that both dromedaries and Bactrian camels were present in modern Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and the Balkans between the first and the fifth centuries AD. Roman-era camel bones—all from adult animals—have been recovered from military settlements, villas, civilian urban sites and amphitheatres, and it is generally thought that these animals were being primarily used as pack animals/beasts of burden, with finds of Bactrian camels perhaps being related to civilian traders and caravans arriving from Central Asia whilst dromedaries from North Africa and Arabia are thought to have been used for both Roman military and civilian traffic. In addition, it is possible that a few of the finds of camel bones may reflect curiosities in the collections of rich landowners, and amphitheatre finds have been sometimes considered suggestive of the use of camels in public shows, although this latter notion is open to question: certainly, an investigation into the camel skeleton from the amphitheatre at Viminacium, Serbia, shows that this dates from after the amphitheatre had ceased to be used in that way.

Turning to the early medieval period (from the late fifth century onwards), the evidence suggests that camels continued to play a role as pack animals in western Europe even after the political dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, with the camels so used being potentially bred in North Africa before being exported to Europe. So, for example, Ennodius, a Milanese deacon, provided camels to Pope Symmachus for his trip to Ravenna to see Theoderic the Great in around AD 499. Similarly, Gregory of Tours noted the use of camels as pack animals in southern Gaul in the 580s in his History of the FranksVII.35:
By now King Guntram's leaders had learnt that Gundovald was ensconced on the opposite bank of the Garonne, with a huge force of enemy troops and having in his possession the entire treasure of Rigunth, which he had stolen. They advanced until they reached the Garonne and then swam across with their horses, some of the soldiers being drowned in the process. The remainder reached the opposite bank. In their search for Gundovald they came upon camels and horses, still carrying huge loads of gold and silver, which his men had abandoned along the roads because the animals were exhausted...
Pack-camels and riding camels in the late sixth- or early seventh-century Tours Pentateuch, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS nouv. acq. lat. 2334 f. 30r (image: BnF Gallica).

This use of pack-camels in Gaul apparently continued into at least the seventh-century. Dado's contemporary Vita S. Eligii, II.13, recounts the following of St Eligius, who died in 660:
Eligius prepared to pack all his things and leave for his own country from the house of Aspasius of the Iuvini family, a most illustrious Christian man. Last of all, he met with Bishop Aurelian of Uzes, who told him that amidst the bustling of the servants of both their houses one of his servants had suddenly lost a basket which he always kept with him to lead the pack-camel so that in the confusion he could keep him to the road.
Needless to say, St Eligius with miraculous knowledge identified the thief and was able to shame him into returning the necessary basket. Another reference to an early medieval pack-camel occurs in the Gesta Pontificum Anglorum of William of Malmesbury, who records a credible tale of St Aldhelm—the late seventh- and early eighth-century Abbot of Malmesbury and Bishop of Sherborne—visiting Rome, before describing his homeward journey using a camel as a beast of burden:
Aldhelm set out energetically on his journey home... carrying with him many different pieces of valuable foreign merchandise, intending to bring to England a quantity of splendid novelties. Among these was an altar of gleaming marble, white in colour, six feet thick, four feet long and three hands wide, with a lip jutting out from the stone and beautifully decorated all around. A camel, so it is said (for what animal of our country could shoulder such a burden?) carried it safely all the way to the Alps. But there the camel (or whatever animal it was, for it does not matter which particular beast carried it) collapsed, injured by the excessive weight or undone by the steep slopes of the track. The fall crushed the animal and broke the marble into two parts.
A baby camel/brontosaurus tied to a tree, from Marvels of the East in the Beowulf-manuscript, which dates from c. AD 1000, British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV f.101r (image: British Library).

Other evidence for the presence of camels in early medieval western Europe includes a camel bone from Lyon dated to the eighth or ninth century and references to their use for transport in Iberia after the Muslim conquest. Perhaps the most interesting evidence comes not from their use as pack animals, however, but rather as a means to humiliate one's enemies. The most famous example here is that of Brunhilda (d. 613), who ruled the eastern Frankish kingdoms of Austrasia and Burgundy for three periods as regent for her son, grandson and great-grandson, until she was finally overthrown and killed by Chlothar II. The eighth-century Liber Historiae Francorum, 96, describes her shockingly brutal death as follows:
Then the army of the Franks and Burgundians joined into one, all shouted together that death would be most fitting for the very wicked Brunhilda. Then King Clotaire ordered that she be lifted on to a camel and led through the entire army. Then she was tied to the feet of wild horses and torn apart limb from limb. Finally she died. Her final grave was the fire. Her bones were burnt.
The contemporary Visigothic king in Hispania and Septimania, Sisebut, who died in 621, gives further details of both her death and the use of camels in his Life of St Desiderius21:
Concerning her end, it will not irk me to relate what I have learnt from common opinion. There is a hunched beast with a huge body and naturally possessed of certain humps (the top of its back is thick and broad, higher than the rest of its frame, and very well fitted for carrying loads) and is more useful for carrying loads than any other animal. She was stripped of her clothes and raised up onto this proud central place and paraded in humiliation before the gaze of her enemies. For a short while she offered this sorry spectacle to her onlookers, then, bound to some unbroken horses, she was dragged over some pathless rocky terrain. Thus her body, already broken by old age, was plucked apart by these spirited horses and her limbs, bloody and nameless, scattered abroad.
Brunhilda was not the only person in the early medieval west to be exposed to mockery on the back of a camel in this fashion, however. Another example comes from Julian of Toldeo's late seventh-century Historia Wambae Regis30, in which he describes the Visigothic King Wamba's triumph over the rebellious Duke Paul in AD 673 and a similar subsequent humiliation of the rebels via the use of camels:
At about the fourth milestone from the royal city, Paul, the chief of the rebellion and other leaders of his conspiracy, with shorn heads, shaved beards, bare feet, and dressed in filthy garments of tunics, are placed on camels. The king of perdition himself went at the head of the pageant, worthy of all the shame of defeat and crowned with pitch on his flayed scalp. A procession of his ministers advancing in a long line followed the king, all of them sitting on the same sort of conveyances as he and driven forward by the same mockeries, with the people standing on either side as they entered the city. Nor should we believe that this befell them without the consent of the just judgment of God, so that their sitting on these mounts raise above all others should mark the lofty summit of their dishonor and so that those who had aimed at sublime heights beyond human nature through the deviousness of their minds should now expiate the treason of their elevation set high above the rest.
Dromedaries as depicted in the sixth-century Vienna Genesis in an illustration of the story of Rebecca, Genesis 24 (image: Wikimedia Commons).

The concept of humiliating one's enemies by making them ride upon the hump of a camel continued to carry weight in western Europe for some considerable period of time. Notker's ninth-century Life of Charlemagne, 31, for example, included a story of a cleric who fell asleep whilst waiting for Charlemagne to go to mass and dreamt of a giant, 'taller than the adversary of Saint Anthony', who was going to lead the royal steward Liutfrid to hell on top of a camel for embezzling the king's wealth! Moreover, as late as 1121 the antipope Gregory VIII was paraded by Pope Callistus II through the streets of Rome riding backwards on a camel and exposed to 'the crudest mockery'. As to the origins of this punishment, it seems to have its roots in Late Roman/Byzantine practice, perhaps parodying the consular investiture ceremony. One of the earliest apparent references from Late Antiquity comes via Socrates Scholasticus—in his fifth-century Historia Ecclesiastica, 3.2—and other sources, who describe George of Cappadocia as having been 'fastened to a camel' in c. 362 and led through Alexandria before being torn to pieces and burnt by the pagans there, and it has been suggested that this eastern Roman humiliation was passed to the west via Justinian's use of the camel in this way against the treasonous Armenian Arsaces at Constantinople, as described by Procopius in the mid-sixth century in his History of the WarsVII.32.3:
There was also a certain Arsaces in Byzantium, an Armenian by birth and one of the Arsacidae, related to Artabanes by blood. This man had been detected not long before this in an attempt to harm the state, and he had been clearly convicted of treason, since he was negotiating with Chosroes, the Persian king, to stir up trouble for the Romans. But the emperor did him no further harm than to beat his back with not many blows and parade him through the city mounted on a camel...
Whatever the case may be on the latter, the practice continued to be used against state enemies in the Byzantine world as well as western Europe into the twelfth century, the last recorded instance being when it was used against the deposed emperor Andronicus I Comnenus in AD 1185, as the contemporary Robert of Clari relates:
But there was there a certain wise man, who said, “Sirs, if ye would trust me, I would show you how we might avenge ourselves right well of him. I have at home a camel, which is the foulest beast and the most bedunged and ugliest in the world. Now we will take Andronicus, and we will strip him stark naked, and we will bind him to the camel’s back in such fashion that his face shall be against its rump, and we will lead him from one end of the city even unto the other. Thus will all they, both men and women, whom he hath wronged, be able to avenge themselves right well.” And all agreed to that which that man had told them. And they took Andronicus and bound him even as the man had devised. And as they were leading him adown the city, then came those that he had wronged; and they stabbed him and pricked him, some with knives, and others with daggers, and yet others with swords. And they cried, “Twas thou didst hang my father! ‘Twas thou didst ravish my wife!”

A twelfth-century Spanish fresco of a camel from the hermitage of San Baudelio de Berlanga, halfway between Madrid and Saragossa (image: The Met).

A twelfth-century mosaic of camels, illustrating the story of Rebecca from Genesis, from the Palatine Chapel, Palermo (image: Andrew & Suzanne, Flickr CC BY-NC).

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2016, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.