Author Topic: Battle of Bravellir c 750-780 AD  (Read 2447 times)

Erpingham

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Battle of Bravellir c 750-780 AD
« on: March 28, 2018, 05:10:12 PM »
Name of the Battle and Date :Bravellir  Date unknown but thought to be mid-8th century AD
Protagonists (opposing nations and generals)Danes : King Harald Wartooth  Swedes :King Hring
Numbers if known : Unknown but large for its period.
The title of and chapter and verse of original sources
Sögubrot  af  Nokkrum  Fornkonungum in Ben Waggoner (trans) : The Sagas of Ragnar Lothbrok, 2009
The Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus, Oliver Elton(1905).

The Battle
Sögubrot
Chapter VII King Harald …….sent the man named Herleif, and with him the contingent of Germans, to meet King Hring, and had them set up hazel stakes on the battlefield for him and claim the site for the battle, and pronounce the breaking of peace and friendship. King Harold travelled with his army for seven days, until he had come east to Bravik. And then the two made ready for battle and deployed their forces.

CHAPTER Vlll It is said that in King Harald's army, there was a chieftain known as Bruni. He was the wisest of all those men that were with him. Harald had Bruni deploy the troops and draw up the chieftains under the banner. King Harald's banner stood in the middle of the formation, and his personal guard surrounded his banner. Visina bore his standard. With her were the champions Karl and Milva. …..A great host of Wends followed Visina the shield-maiden. They were easy to recognize: they had long swords and bucklers, but they did not have long shields like the other men. On one of King Harald's flanks there was Heid the shield-maiden with her banner, and she had a hundred champions with her. There were her berserks: Grim, Geirr, Holmstein, Eysodul, Hedin the Slim, Dag the Livonian, and Harald Olafsson. There were many chieftains with Ileid on that flank. On the other flank was that chieftain called Haki CurCheek, and standards were borne before him. Many were the kings and champions with him. There were Alfar and Alfarin, the sons of King Gandalf, who had already become King Harald's bodyguards and retainers. King Harald was in a wagon so that he might go to the battle, since he was not bearing weapons.
The king sent Bruni and Heid to spy out how Hring had arranged his forces and whether he was prepared for the battle. Bruni said, ' 'It seems to me that Hring and his host are ready to fight. He has deployed his forces in an amazing way. He has arranged his battle lines in the boar's-head formation, and it won't be good to fight against him."
Then King Harald said, "Who could have taught Hring how to form the boar's- head formation? I thought that no one knew except for me and Odin—or does Odin wish to deny me the gift of victory? That has never happened before, and still I pray to him that he not do that. But since he now does not wish to grant me victory, then may he let me fall in the battle with all my host, if he wills it not that the Danes have victory as before. And all the slain that fall on this field, I give to Odin."
It was as Bruni had said; Hring had formed all his host into the boar's head formation. It seemed to the eye to be a very deep formation, since the point was in the forefront. However, it was so long that one flank began at the Var River, and the other one extended over to Bravik. King Hring had with him in the battle many kings and champions. The greatest man with him was that king called Ali the Bold, who had a great multitude of men and many other famous kings and champions. With him was that champion who was the most famous in the old sagas, Starkad the Old, son of Storverk, who had been raised in Norway, in Ilordaland on Fenring Island, and had traveled widely throughout the land and been with many kings. Many other champions had come from Norway to this battle: And there were men who'd come to King Hring from Telemark, who were champions, but who had the least respect because they seemed to be drawlers and slow speakers. These men were from there: Thorkel the Stubborn, Thorleif the Gotlander, Hadd the Hardy, Grettif the Twisted, and Hroald Toe. That man had also come to king Hfing who was named Rognvald the Tall of Radbard Fist, the greatest of all champions. He was at the point of the wedge formation, and next to him were Tryggvi and Læsir, and on the outside were the Alrekssons and Yngvi. Then there were the men from Telemark, whom no one wanted to have; everyone thought they would be of little assistance. They were great bowmen.

CHAPTER IX When this host was all deployed for battle, each side blew trumpets and screamed its loudest war-cry. Then the armies came together, and this battle was so fierce and so great, as is said in all the old sagas, that no battle has been fought in the Northlands with such a great number of such excellent men in the fight. When the battle had just begun, the champion named Ubbi the Frisian advanced before King Harald's army, and he attacked the man who stood at the point of King Hring's formation. He had the first combat with Rognvald Redbeard, and their exchange was most fierce, and terrible blows might be seen there in the ranks when these bold men went at each other. Each gave the other many great blows, and Ubbi was such a great champion that he did not slacken until their single combat was ended, when Rognvald fell before him. And next he charged at Tryggvi and wounded him with a deadly wound. And when the Alrekssons saw how terrifying his onslaught was, they attacked him and fought with him, but he was so hardy and such a great champion that he killed both of them, and after that he killed Yngvi. And then he advanced into the ranks, so enraged that everyone whatsoever fled before him, and he felled all of those who stood foremost in the wedge, except for those who backed up against the other champions. And when King Hring saw that, he urged his army not to let one man rout all such noble men as were with him "but where is the champion Starkad, who has always borne the highest shield? Win victory for us." He answered, "We have more than enough work, lord, but we shall try to win such a victory as we may. But that man, Ubbi, may turn out to be a real trial." But at the king's urging he charged out of the ranks against Ubbi, and there was a great battle between them, with huge blows and great strength, for both of them were bold. They fought for a while, and Starkad gave him one great wound, and in return he received six wounds, all large. It seemed to him that he had hardly ever had such a trial from one man. And because the ranks pressed so strongly, they were pushed in opposite directions, and thus their single combat was broken off. Then Ubbi killed the champion named Agnar, and he constantly cleared a path before himself, striking with two hands. Both of his arms were bloody to the shoulders. And then he attacked the Telemark men. When they saw him, they said, “Now we don't need to look for any other position in the ranks. Let's attack this man with arrows for a while, and before. . [manuscript is missing 12-15 letters] . . . the victory. And since it seems to everyone such a little thing that we came here, let's do all the more, so that we may seem bold men." They began to shoot at him, they who were the bravest of the Telemark men, Hadd the Hardy and Hroald Toe. They were such bold men at shooting, that they shot two dozen arrows into his breast, and still he didn't die quickly. These men gave him his death—after he had killed six champions, and besides that had dealt great wounds to eleven champions, and had killed sixteen men of the Swedes and Gauts who stood in the front rank. At that moment, Vebjorg the shieldmaiden made a great attack against the Swedes and Gauts. She charged at the champion called Attack-Soti, and she had trained herself so much with helm and byrnie and sword that she was the foremost in knighthood, as Starkad the Old says. She struck champions with mighty blows, and attacked for a long time. She struck one blow on his cheek and chopped his jawbone apart and sliced off his chin. He tucked his beard in his mouth and bit down on it and so held his chin up. She accomplished many great deeds in the ranks. A little while later Thorkel the Stubborn, a champion of King Hring, met her, and they exchanged fierce attacks, and before it was over he killed her with great wounds, and much courage." Now many great events happened in a short time. Each army by turns held the advantage. Many a man on both sides never came home or received lasting scars. Now Starkad rushed forward at the Danes. He attacked the champion named Hun and they battled each other. In the end Starkad killed him and, a little later, the one who tried to avenge him, named Ella. And then he advanced on the one named Borgat•; they had a hard combat together, and in the end Starkad killed him. Starkad now charged the ranks with drawn sword and struck down one man after another. And next he struck down the one named Hjort, and then Visina the shield-maiden met him; she bore King Harald's banner. Starkad attacked her fiercely. Then she said to Starkad, "Now Hel's greed has come upon you, and now you must die, you ogre.” He answered, "But first, you’ll let King Harald's banner droop," and he cut off her left hand. Then the man called Brai, the father of Sækalf, came against him to avenge her, and Starkad ran him through with his sword. Now one might see great heaps of corpses in the ranks, far and wide. Somewhat later, Gnepja, a great champion, came against Starkad, and they attacked each other fiercely, and Starkad gave him a death-wound. Next he killed the champion named Haki, and he got the greatest wound in that moment. He was slashed between his neck and shoulders, so that his Insides could be seen, and on the front of his chest he had such a great wound that his lungs were falling out, and he had lost a finger on the right hand. When King Harald saw how great was the slaughter of his men and champions, he raised himself up on his knees and picked up two knives and harshly whipped forward the horse that was hitched to the wagon. He thrust with both blades with both hands and dealt death to many men with his own hands, even though he could not walk nor sit on a horse. The battle now went on for a while, as the king accomplished many mighty deeds. Towards the end of this battle, King Harald Wartooth was slain by a club to the head, shattering his skull. That was his death-blow, and Bruni killed him. King Hring saw King Harald's wagon empty, and he realized that the king must have fallen. He ordered trumpets to be blown and called for the hosts to stand down. When the Danes became aware of this, they stopped fighting, and King Hring offered a truce to all of King Harald's army, and they all accepted it. The next day, in the morning, King Hring ordered a search among the slain for the body of King Harald, his kinsman. There was a great host of dead fallen over where the body lay. It happened that the broken body was found at mid-day King Hring had the body of King Harald, his kinsman, taken and cleaned of blood and prepared with full honors, according to the ancient custom. He had the body lie in the wagon which King Harald had in the battle. And after that he had a great howe raised up , and then had King Harald ride in the wagon, hitched to the horse which he had in the battle. And so he had him ride into the howe, and then the horse was killed. Then King Hring took the saddle which he himself had ridden on, and he gave it to King Harald, his kinsman, and bade him do whichever he wished: ride on horseback to Valhall, or ride in the wagon. Then he had a great feast made there, and conducted the funeral rites for King Harald, his kinsman. And before the howe was shut, King Hring bid all the great men and all the champions that were present to come and cast great rings and good weapons into the howe, for the honor of King Harald Wartooth. And after that the howe was carefully closed.

Saxo Grammaticus
Book VIII The fleet of Gotland was waiting for the Swedish fleet in the harbour named Garnum. So Ring led the land-force, while Ole was instructed to command the fleet. Now the Goths were appointed a time and a place between Wik and Werund for the conflict with the Swedes. Then was the sea to be seen furrowed up with prows, and the canvas unfurled upon the masts cut off the view over the ocean. The Danes had so far been distressed with bad weather; but the Swedish fleet had a fair voyage and had reached the scene of battle earlier. Here Ring disembarked his forces from his fleet, and then massed and prepared to draw up in line both these and the army he had himself conducted overland. When these forces were at first loosely drawn up over the open country, it was found that one wing reached all the way to Werund. The multitude was confused in its places and ranks; but the king rode round it and posted in the van all the smartest and most excellently-armed men, led by Ole, Regnald, and Wivil; then he massed the rest of the army on the two wings in a kind of curve. Ung, with the sons of Alrek, and Trig, he ordered to protect the right wing, while the left was put under the command of Laesi. Moreover, the wings and the masses were composed mainly of a close squadron of Kurlanders and of Esthonians. Last stood the line of slingers.
…So when the Danish army came upon the Swedes, who stood awaiting them, Ring told his men to stand quietly until Harald had drawn up his line of battle; bidding them not to sound the signal before they saw the king settled in his chariot beside the standards; for he said he should hope that an army would soon come to grief which trusted in the leading of a blind man. …..Now Brun, being instructed to form the line on Harald's behalf, made the front in a wedge, posting Hetha on the right flank, putting Hakon in command of the left, and making Wisna standard-bearer. Then the trumpets sounded, and both sides engaged in battle with all their strength. The sky seemed to fall suddenly on the earth, fields and woods to sink into the ground; all things were confounded, and old Chaos come again; heaven and earth mingling in one tempestuous turmoil, and the world rushing to universal ruin. For, when the spear-throwing began, the intolerable clash of arms filled the air with an incredible thunder. The steam of the wounds suddenly hung a mist over the sky, the daylight was hidden under the hail of spears. The help of the slingers was of great use in the battle. But when the missiles had all been flung from hand or engines, they fought with swords or iron-shod maces; and it was now at close quarters that most blood was spilt. Then the sweat streamed down their weary bodies, and the clash of the swords could be heard afar. Starkad, who was the first to set forth the history of this war in the telling, fought foremost in the fray, and relates that he overthrew the nobles of Harald, Hun and Elli, Hort and Burgha, and cut off the right hand of Wisna. He also relates that one Roa, with two others, Gnepie and Gardar, fell wounded by him in the field. To these he adds the father of Skalk, whose name is not given. He also declares that he cast Hakon, the bravest of the Danes, to the earth, but received from him such a wound in return that he had to leave the war with his lung protruding from his chest, his neck cleft to the centre, and his hand deprived of one finger; so that he long had a gaping wound, which seemed as if it would never either scar over or be curable. The same man witnesses that the maiden Weghbiorg (Webiorg) fought against the enemy and felled Soth the champion. While she was threatening to slay more champions, she was pierced through by an arrow from the bowstring of Thorkill, a native of Tellemark. For the skilled archers of the Gotlanders strung their bows so hard that the shafts pierced through even the shields; nothing proved more murderous; for the arrow-points made their way through hauberk and helmet as if they were men's defenceless bodies. Meanwhile Ubbe the Frisian, who was the readiest of Harald's soldiers, and of notable bodily stature, slew twenty-five picked champions, besides eleven whom he had wounded in the field. All these were of Swedish or Gothic blood. Then he attacked the vanguard and burst into the thickest of the enemy, driving the Swedes struggling in a panic every way with spear and sword. It had all but come to a flight, when Hagder (Hadd), Rolder (Hroald), and Grettir attacked the champion, emulating his valour, and resolving at their own risk to retrieve the general ruin. But, fearing to assault him at close quarters, they accomplished their end with arrows from afar; and thus Ubbe was riddled by a shower of arrows, no one daring to fight him hand to hand. A hundred and forty-four arrows had pierced the breast of the warrior before his bodily strength failed and he bent his knee to the earth. Then at last the Danes suffered a great defeat, owing to the Thronds and the dwellers in the province of Dala. For the battle began afresh by reason of the vast mass of the archers, and nothing damaged our men more. But when Harald, being now blind with age, heard the lamentable murmur of his men, he perceived that fortune had smiled on his enemies. So, as he was riding in a chariot armed with scythes, he told Brun, who was treacherously acting as charioteer, to find out in what manner Ring had his line drawn up. Brun's face relaxed into something of a smile, and he answered that he was fighting with a line in the form of a wedge. When the king heard this, he began to be alarmed, and to ask in great astonishment from whom Ring could have learnt this method of disposing his line, especially as Odin was the discoverer and imparter of this teaching, and none but himself had ever learnt from him this new pattern of warfare. At this Brun was silent, and it came into the king's mind that here was Odin, and that the god whom he had once known so well was now disguised in a changeful shape, in order either to give help or withhold it. Presently he began to beseech him earnestly to grant the final victory to the Danes, since he had helped them so graciously before, and to fill up his last kindness to the measure of the first; promising to dedicate to him as a gift the spirits of all who fell. But Brun, utterly unmoved by his entreaties, suddenly jerked the king out of the chariot, battered him to the earth, plucked the club from him as he fell, whirled it upon his head, and slew him with his own weapon. Countless corpses lay round the king's chariot, and the horrid heap overtopped the wheels; the pile of carcases rose as high as the pole. For about 12,000 of the nobles of Ring fell upon the field. But on the side of Harald about 30,000 nobles fell, not to name the slaughter of the commons.
When Ring heard that Harald was dead, he gave the signal to his men to break up their line and cease fighting. Then under cover of truce he made treaty with the enemy, telling them that it was vain to prolong the fray without their captain. Next he told the Swedes to look everywhere among the confused piles of carcases for the body of Harald, that the corpse of the king might not wrongfully lack its due rights. So the populace set eagerly to the task of turning over the bodies of the slain, and over this work half the day was spent. At last the body was found with the club, and he thought that propitiation should be made to the shade of Harald. So he harnessed the horse on which he rode to the chariot of the king, decked it honourably with a golden saddle, and hallowed it in his honour. Then he proclaimed his vows and added his prayer that Harald would ride on this and outstrip those who shared his death in their journey to Tartarus; and that he would pray Pluto, the lord of Orcus, to grant a calm abode there for friend and foe. Then he raised a pyre and bade the Danes fling on the gilded chariot of their king as fuel to the fire. And while the flames were burning the body cast upon them, he went round the mourning nobles and earnestly charged them that they should freely give arms, gold, and every precious thing to feed the pyre in honour of so great a king, who had deserved so nobly of them all. He also ordered that the ashes of his body, when it was quite burnt, should be transferred to an urn, taken to Leire, and there, together with the horse and armour, receive a royal funeral. By paying these due rites of honour to his uncle's shade, he won the favour of the Danes, and turned the hate of his enemies into goodwill.

Saxo’s description of how to form a wedge

Book VII And when Harald wished to inquire of oracles how this war would end, an old man of great height, but lacking one eye, and clad also in a hairy mantle, appeared before him, and declared that he was called Odin, and was versed in the practice of warfare; and he gave him the most useful instruction how to divide up his army in the field. Now he told him, whenever he was going to make war with his land-forces, to divide his whole army into three squadrons, each of which he was to pack into twenty ranks; the centre squadron, however, he was to extend further than the rest by the number of twenty men. This squadron he was also to arrange in the form of the point of a cone or pyramid, and to make the wings on either side slant off obliquely from it. He was to compose the successive ranks of each squadron in the following way: the front should begin with two men, and the number in each succeeding rank should only increase by one; he was, in fact, to post a rank of three in the second line, four in the third, and so on behind. And thus, when the men mustered, all the succeeding ranks were to be manned at the same rate of proportion, until the end of (the edge that made) the junction of men came down to the wings; each wing was to be drawn up in ten lines from that point. Likewise after these squadrons he was to put the young men, equipped with lances, and behind these to set the company of aged men, who would support their comrades with what one might call a veteran valour if they faltered; next, a skilful reckoner should attach wings of slingers to stand behind the ranks of their fellows and attack the enemy from a distance with missiles. After these he was to enroll men of any age or rank indiscriminately, without heed of their estate. Moreover, he was to draw up the rear like the vanguard, in three separated divisions, and arranged in ranks similarly proportioned. The back of this, joining on to the body in front would protect it by facing in the opposite direction.

Commentary
Little attention is paid to the Battle of Bravellir, the legendary battle between King Hring and King Harald Wartooth.  Most would admit there probably was a battle at Bravellir (near modern Bråviken) in Östergötland.  But when and why it was fought elude us.  It fits at that point in Norse history where legend is bumping up against verifiable history.   It is nigh impossible from our sources to make much tactical sense of it too.

Our main sources quite clearly are retellings of the same great epic poem on the battle.  When they were composed in the 13th century, this had been written down (Saxo refers several times to a belief that Starkad the Old wrote the account).  So we get the interest of two medieval interpretations of the same source.

What we get is a battle description which is prefaced by hero lists, much of which aren’t included here for space reasons.  These give all sorts of little snippets about some of the warriors.  The original obviously contained a detailed description of the following of Visina the shieldmaiden, with their small shields which they slung on their backs to fight two handed with their swords.  Everyone else had “long” shields – perhaps anachronistically referring to kite shields.  Some people have specialisms – archery, spear-throwing, poetry and property and contract law (honestly).  Sometimes these give us tactical clues e.g. Alf the Lofty (yes, really) who “was a swift spear-thrower and used to go in the front of the battle.”

While the accounts look like a collection of random heroics, they take place against a more orderly background which can tell us a bit about Early Medieval armies.  Both armies are made up of a lot of contingents.  Heroes command these or maybe a member of them.  Some are ship crews, or crews of a group of ships.  Others are described as bodyguards and there is one contingent of four berserkers in Visina’s retinue.  These armies are actually carefully marshalled by Hring and Bruni/Odin.  They contain a vanguard and two wings, because they are both wedges.  Not little wedges either – they stretch across the field.  I’ve included Saxo’s description of how to make up one of these wedges, confusing though it is.  Each part of the army has a standard.  Hring in particular puts his best men in his front ranks.  This leads to a problem with the Telemark contingent, who are country bumpkins in others’ eyes.  But they and their powerful archery have their day.

When all is set, both sides sound trumpets, shout their warcries and advance on each other.  Ubbi the Frisian launches an attack on the Swedish “snout” and causes chaos, nearly breaking them.  Even Starkad (a hero’s hero) can’t stop him.  Ubbi charges in and out of the front (alone or with others?) but eventually finds himself head-to-head with the Telemarkers, who shoot him.

In the meantime, there has been an advance to engage and both armies throw lots of spears, stones and slingshots.  Saxo clearly felt Swedish archery was decisive.  Heroes make attacks and withdrawals – are these meant to be solo efforts or attacks by small bands? – and the battle flows back and forth.  The logical view of the overall course is that the two “snouts” engage first and the wings slowly flatten out into weapon distance.  A lot of the heavy hitters are in the snout and perhaps the success or failure of the two sides in this encounter is key.  Although chronology is confused, at some point Starkad penetrates the Danish centre and brings Harald’s standard down.  Afterwards (sooner or later), the Danes begin to break – due to the Thronds and men from Dala – and Harald in his wagon is in the action.  Is he seeking a warrior’s death or is it just that the Swedes are caving the centre in and his men are attempting to make a stand to defend him?

The death of Harald brings a break in the fighting and a truce is called.  Dealing with the dead begins.  Hring’s treatment of Harald’s body was clearly important, even if the details are different.

Perhaps one of the interesting questions is how different is this battle from a “normal” Viking Age battle?  It doesn’t look like a clash of shieldwalls but that may be because of how we view shieldwall fighting.  Do heroes and leaders clash in battles like Vinheithr, Clontarf or Maldon?  Do the ranks seem to crack open and groups of enemies enter in, to be driven out again or perhaps to topple a standard and kill a leader?  Are armies locked in a head-to-head struggle or do they ebb and flow?  How important are the bands of fighters the heroes form part of or lead?  It seems to me we are dealing with an example in the same tradition, albeit described in very heroic poetic form.

« Last Edit: March 28, 2018, 06:02:31 PM by Erpingham »
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Andreas Johansson

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Re: Battle of Bravellir c 750-780 AD
« Reply #1 on: March 28, 2018, 05:33:57 PM »
It's interesting how anglophone scholarship tends to be much more inclined to accept a historical basis to High Medieval accounts of Sweden's "semihistorical" period (ca AD 400-1000). Swedish-language scholarship tends to be a lot more skeptical, and the battle of Bravellir (Sw. Bråvalla*) is widely considered mythical, or at least its historicity is considered unknowable and largely irrelevant.

* Bråviken isn't the modern name of the battlefield, but of the nearby inlet of the Baltic Sea. There's also a Bråvalla hed ("heath of Bråvalla") much further south, that has also been identified as the battlefield; indeed a barrow there is allegedly Harald's final resting place.
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Erpingham

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Re: Battle of Bravellir c 750-780 AD
« Reply #2 on: March 28, 2018, 06:01:57 PM »
It's interesting how anglophone scholarship tends to be much more inclined to accept a historical basis to High Medieval accounts of Sweden's "semihistorical" period (ca AD 400-1000). Swedish-language scholarship tends to be a lot more skeptical, and the battle of Bravellir (Sw. Bråvalla*) is widely considered mythical, or at least its historicity is considered unknowable and largely irrelevant.
Interesting.  We British are forever contemplating our own "semi-historical" period - the Age of Arthur.  While nobody takes stuff literally, most feel there is some basic truth in there (e.g. the the battle of Badon is based on something, not just invented).

Quote


* Bråviken isn't the modern name of the battlefield, but of the nearby inlet of the Baltic Sea. There's also a Bråvalla hed ("heath of Bråvalla") much further south, that has also been identified as the battlefield; indeed a barrow there is allegedly Harald's final resting place.

Editing error on my part.  It originally said near Braviken, quoting wikipedia.   I've corrected it now.

P.S. I suppose what I ought to make clear is its historicity is a bit irrelevant to why I put it there.  I'm firmly in the camp of thinking you can draw out interesting details of how authors thought about warfare even when they are describing a legendary or even fictional battle.  Here we have what is probably a Viking-era poem which has been written down maybe sometime in the 11th or 12th century then picked up and recycled by two 13th century authors.  An accurate description of a historical action no, an interesting period description of battle maybe.  By way of comparison, Harald Hardrada's Saga contains a description of the battle of Stamford Bridge which is largely made up by a 13th century author interpreting possibly quite limited poetic sources.  His description of the anti-cavalry formation, though, is detailed and, IMO, describes early medieval practice in better detail than elsewhere.
« Last Edit: March 28, 2018, 06:15:10 PM by Erpingham »
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