Sunday, September 19, 2010

Piratical Vexillology

Yarr, mateys, welcome aboard! Now settle back with yer mug o' grog, and we'll -

You know what, stop. International Talk Like a Pirate Day or no, I don't think I can keep that up for an entire post.

Moving on, then, to vexillology, or the study of flags. Everybody is, I presume, familiar with the standard "Skull-and-Crossbones", or "Jolly Roger" flag, of which the above is a pretty standard example. Individual pirate crews, of course, would modify the flag in various ways, each one being more or less unique (though some would simply use solid black) - the example shown above happens to have been used by the Irish-born Edward England.

As any book on Golden Age Piracy will tell you, many ships also had a solid red flag, which they would fly when their target offered resistance, signifying that "No Quarter" would be given - i.e., the attached crew would be killed. It is thought that the term "Jolly Roger" actually comes from a French phrase referring to this flag, joli rouge - "Pretty Red".

Recently, I was reading a book almost completely uninvolved with pirates - The Great Crown Jewel Robbery of 1303, by Paul Doherty, and came across the following passage, presented as an aside:

" . . . Norman pirates, displaying 'Beaussons, streamers of red sandal' sent a message, well known amongst mariners, that it would mean 'death without quarter and war to the knife' for the English sailors." (Doherty 15)

Doherty's source is given as F.M.Powicke's The Thirteenth Century, a volume which I am currently trying to track down. Some poking around on the Internet has revealed a citation of "a document of about 1300" which would appear to be the original source for the 'Beaussons, streamers of red sandal' quote, but no further information seems readily obtainable.

It is very, very tempting to jump to the obvious conclusion, that there is some kind of continuity between the Norman pirates and the later Caribbean ones. More study is obviously needed - 400 years is a very long time - but if it ends up being mostly true, there's an even more distant connection to be made: who were the Normans descended from again?

That's right - the Vikings, who were after all, the most famous medieval pirates of all. Though at this time tenuous, the possibility of continuity we have here just astounds me.

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