Monday, 8 February 2016

A Medieval Stabproof Vest

Mondays in Milan / Les lundis en Lombardie

This object in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan is a very cleverly displayed gambeson. Essentially it is a medieval stabproof vest. You can see the outer surface of the front of the garment at the top, and the inner surface of the back of the garment below. It is designed to be worn as a protective garment on its own, or under plate armour and provides added comfort and protection for the wearer. It is made of canvas and mail. This one has additional metal studding and all the layers are stitched through like a quilt. Indeed I would expect it to have some padding and quilting, and it may also have arming points, for securing sections of plate armour.

Plate armour had known vulnerable points, where a properly trained swordsman with the right weapon could slip his sword in under the armour of his opponent. The gambeson made up for the weaknesses in the plate armour design, as well as acting as a shock absorber for blows from blunt instruments. Milanese plate armour, along with south German armour, was considered the very best at the time this gambeson was made.
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Loire Valley Nature: A photo has been added to the entry for Ilex Hairstreak butterfly Satyricum ilex. This is one of my favourite butterflies, partly because it has such a short season.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Termite Mounds

These two giant mud structures were made by termites in the savanna woodlands of the Northern Territory of Australia. These ones, with their buttresses, are known as 'cathedral mounds' and are made by Spinifex Termites Nasutitermes triodiae.  Other termite species in the area build tall narrow mounds aligned north - south, and others live underground or in trees. The termites that live in mounds like this are not the sort that will invade and eat your wooden house, although these species occur in Australia too.

Termites and ants are the most abundant insects in the savanna. The savanna would not look as it does without the termites. They are herbivores and consume vast quantities of grass and wood. The savanna supports a far greater weight of termites per square kilometre than it does cattle, despite this being considered good cattle grazing country. Termites live in colonies, with a queen served by workers and soldiers. The workers are adapted for either foraging or mound building, the soldiers have different weapons at their disposal (some use chemical substances, others have pincer like mandibles). The secret to their success is that they can digest cellulose and lignin from the plants they harvest. These tough parts of the plant which give it rigidity are indigestible by most herbivores.

Termite colonies last for the lifetime of their queen. The soldiers and workers only have a lifespan of a couple of years, but some evidence suggests that a queen could live 100 years. While the queen lives the mound is maintained. Unfortunately because of the continual running repairs and internal remodelling it is impossible to date termite mounds using a cross-section, as there are no 'growth rings' like there would be in a tree for example. A mature mound is about 5 metres high and may contain millions of individuals.

The insulated termite mounds serve to control the insects' environment in hot dry conditions, allowing them to live in a humid microclimate. It is believed the large buttressed or fluted structures of the cathedral mounds allows better ventilation for the storage of the termites grass forage.

Periodically the termites produce a generation with wings and they swarm and mate, simultaneously providing a feast for ants, small mammals, birds, spiders, frogs and lizards in the area. The mound itself is full of nutrients which get cycled back into the soil, and the termite activity is extremely important in dry environments which don't suit bacteria and fungi in terms of breaking down dead plant material. In Australia termites are probably particularly important because there are no great herds of migrating grazers such as there are in Africa.

My Dad by one of the termite mounds.
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Back from Babylon: We returned yesterday from a week in Paris. We have seen the Beast of Turin and many other wonders beside. Blog posts to follow, naturally.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Eglise Saint Denis, Amboise

Saint Denis in Amboise is a Romanesque church dating from the very early 12th century. It was enlarged in the 16th century and extensively renovated in the 19th century.
Saint Denis is apparently 70.10 metres above sea level (Fr. 70.10 au dessus du niveau de la mer) according to this plaque by the door.
Below: The view from the church to the chateau.
Below: Looking towards the apse, which is filled with an enormous 17th century altarpiece. In the centre of the choir hangs a crystal chandelier, a gift from the Algerian leader Emir Abd-el-Kadr in 1853. He had been held under house arrest in the chateau from 1848 to 1852.
The capitals date from the 12th century. They are particularly fine and depict foliage, monsters and fantastical animals, legends and historical events.
Below: on the left of the capital two devils seize a pot-bellied sinner to drag him off to Hell.
Below: a girl doing a handstand on one of the column capitals.
The organ was restored in the 1960s.
The side chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary features two 19th century wall paintings. The one below is of Jeanne de Valois, the unfortunate youngest daughter of Louis XI and first wife of Louis XII. When Louis XII became king he wanted to discard Jeanne in favour of Anne de Bretagne. In order to ensure an annulment was granted to the thus far childless marriage he publically claimed that Jeanne was so ugly, deformed and mentally handicapped that he found it impossible to fulfill his duty as a husband and there would therefore never be an heir to the throne, a disaster for the monarchy. Jeanne fought back in spirited fashion, reminding the court of the time Louis had boasted of 'performing' three or four times in one night, but it was to no avail and she was put aside.
Below: a 19th century stained glass window dedicated to Saint Vincent, probably by the well known workshop of Lobin in Tours.
Saint Denis also houses some exceptional 16th century funerary monuments. I blogged about the Babou family tomb monument here, the 'drowned woman' here and Mary Magdalene here.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Trapped Triton

On Saturday 23 January I participated in the local annual survey of hibernating bats. This involves getting slightly speleological and going down various holes in the ground, mostly abandoned underground limestone quarries and the cellars of chateaux, both known in French as caves.

In one chateau cellar we found two forlorn creatures huddling together in a patch of damp where water was seeping down the wall. They had obviously fallen in to the cellar either down a light well or a ventilation duct.

Agile Frog.
One was a Great Crested Newt Triturus cristatus (Fr. Triton crêté) and its companion an Agile Frog Rana dalmatina (Fr. la Grenouille agile). The newt particularly was dehydrated.

Great Crested Newt. We don't know which sex it was as it is impossible to tell at this time of year.
Once they are in somewhere like a cellar or the bottom of a well they don't have the strength to haul themselves up several metres of vertical stone wall. Well owners are advised to drop a length of landscaping textile down from the top or provide a permanent ramp made from a plank covered in small chicken wire. There just isn't enough food available down at the bottom for these creatures to survive.

Great Crested Newt, turned over to display its belly, with the Agile Frog just sitting there, probably an indication of its weakened state.
Fellow blogger Amelia wrote about her experience with this problem last year and you can read her posts here.

We picked the unfortunate beasts up and took them outside to recover in some wet grass near a pond.