Valeria Messalina was the third wife of emperor Claudius. She was notorious for being an absolute nymphomaniac.
She married Claudius in A.D. 38 and they had two children, who were rumoured to have actually been fathered by Caligula as she was a frequent attendee to his many banquets and orgies.
After Caligula was finally murdered, Messalina, although now empress, did not suppress her urges.
At night she would even dress up as a prostitute and incognito she would trade as a prostitute – such was her insatiable appetite for men.
She once challenged the famous Roman prostitute, Scylla, to a sex-athon, whereby the winner was the one who copulated with the most men.
The competition lasted for 24 hours and Messalina won with a score of 25 partners.
In 48 A.D. she plotted with one of her lovers, Sillius, to have Claudius murdered and even had a secret marriage ceremony with him. However, one of Claudius’s advisors Narcissus, exposed the plot to him.
Claudius was heartbroken and could hardly believe his own ears, but was eventually persuaded to have her and Sillius promptly executed.
Messalina was given the option of suicide but she could not bring herself to take her own life.
One summer a few years ago I stayed in student rooms in Trinity College. Although the accommodation was rather spartan with the traditional blue tack scars on the walls, it was so atmospheric to be able to wander around the old buildings of the Dublin university long after all the tourists had gone.
Best of all was the chance to visit the Book of Kells as many times as I wanted. (The Library displays a different page each day.) These illuminated manuscripts are one of the wonders of medieval Europe.
Imagine the monks in their stone huts, battered by sea winds, bent over their painstaking work. Strictly speaking, rather than The Book of Kells, named after a town in County Meath, it should be called the Book of Iona, as it’s thought that it was monks on that remote Scottish island who were the original artists.
They were inhabitants of a monastery founded there in the 6th Century by the Irish monk Columba, or Colm Cille as he’s known in Irish. In fact, for many centuries the manuscript was believed to be the great Gospel of Columba.
But scholars now place the book in a later period and think it was completed by 800 AD. I find it extraordinary that in such a wild place with limited materials that these men were able to create a work of art that is so delicate and ornate.
You can imagine the monks inside their beehive-shaped stone huts, battered by sea winds with squawking gulls outside, bent over their painstaking work.
I’ve visited another early settlement on Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry in the Atlantic and it is hard to express how bleak and remote those lives were.
The library at Trinity College, Dublin displays a different page from The Book of Kells each day (Image Credit: Photograph by Alamy).
But it wasn’t just forces of nature with which the monks had to contend. The monastery, like many early Christian communities, came under the threat of Viking raids. In 806, following a raid that left 68 of the community dead, the Columban monks took refuge in a newly-founded monastery at Kells in County Meath in Ireland to keep them safe.
The most likely theory is that the monks took the manuscript with them. Amazingly since they were written, the majority of the pages have been passed down through the generations with just 60 pages missing. But medieval sources do record that an illuminated manuscript was stolen from the stone church of Kells in 1006 which is likely to have been the Book of Kells.
According to the Annals of Ulster it was found “two months and twenty days” later “under a sod.” After fighting in the Cromwellian period, the church at Kells lay in ruins, and in 1653 the book was sent to Dublin by the governor of Kells for safekeeping.
A few years later it reached Trinity College where it remains today. Light of the dark ages
The scale and ambition of The Book of Kells is incredible. Written on vellum, it is estimated that the skins of 185 calves were needed for the project. Practically all of the 680 pages are decorated in some way or another. On some pages every corner is filled with the most detailed and beautiful Celtic designs.
This is a description thought by many to be of the Book of Kells by the 12th Century writer Gerald of Wales: You might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man – Gerald of Wales.
“This book contains the harmony of the Four Evangelists according to Jerome, where for almost every page there are different designs, distinguished by varied colours.
Here you may see the face of majesty, divinely drawn, here the mystic symbols of the Evangelists, each with wings, now six, now four, now two; here the eagle, there the calf, here the man and there the lion, and other forms almost infinite.
Look at them superficially with the ordinary glance, and you would think it is an erasure, and not tracery.
Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it.
Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man.”
The title page of St John’s Gospel shows the thoughtful-looking saint, along with a less respectable figure swigging from a goblet of wine (Credit: The Book of Kells)
In 1217, King Henry III (r. 1216–72) issued a new version of Magna Carta, together with a new charter dealing with the royal forest. It was in a proclamation of February 1218 that the name ‘Magna Carta’ itself first appears, in order to distinguish the Great Charter from its shorter forest brother.
On 11 February 1225, at the same time as issuing the final and definitive version of Magna Carta, Henry likewise issued a new version of the Charter of the Forest. Thereafter ‘the Charters’, as they were called, were always linked together.
This example of the 1225 Forest Charter is one of three surviving originals. In substance, it is similar to the Forest Charter of 1217, but includes the statement about the granting of a tax in return for the charter, and the same long witness list, as in the 1225 Magna Carta.
Like Magna Carta, the 1225 Forest Charter was also sealed with the King’s Great Seal. This copy retains its original linen seal bag.
In John’s reign, roughly a third of the country was royal forest, and the penalties imposed for forest offences were a major source of revenue for the king.
One aim of the Forest Charter was to reduce the area of the royal forest by removing everything which King Henry II (chiefly blamed for the forest’s vast extent) had placed within it.
The Charter also banned capital punishments for forest offences (such as poaching and hunting the protected deer), and exempted those having woods within the forest from fines for erecting buildings and creating new arable land.
Ivan Kupala is an ancient pagan ritual, which used to be known as just Kupala – meaning to bathe. Ivan – meaning John, as in John the Baptist – was added after Christianity came to the region and assimilated the festivities.
The ritual was originally held on the summer solstice between June 20 and 22, but was moved to the birthday of St John the Baptist, which was on June 23 by the old Julian calendar.
The new Gregorian calendar moved the date to July 6, so the link with the solstice was lost.
Despite its associations with Christianity, the festival still draws heavily on mysticism and folk-law.
It is believed that witches also take a holiday on this day and come to do harm to people, and that werewolves and mermaids also emerge to roam around and attack the souls of the wicked.
The day-long ritual is therefore designed around purity, supposedly cleansing the body and soul and providing protection, fertility and luck to those who take part.
The main focus is fire-jumping, with the flames supposedly cleansing the souls of those who pass over it.
Couples who can complete the jump holding hands will have a strong relationship, while friends may also jump together to prove their loyalty to one-another.
Unmarried women also wear garlands of flowers and herbs in their hair during the day, and at night float the wreaths out on to a lake with a candle. The woman whose flowers float the longest will be lucky in love, while the longest burning candle denotes long life.
It is also said that, on this one night, ferns are able to produce flowers, with whoever sights one of the blooms able to make a wish come true.
Villagers often take off into the woods in search of the blossoms, with unmarried women allowed to go first with single men following, in the hope that relationships might also blossom in the hunt.