Sorry, I’ve been on a holiday to Carcassonne!

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Hello from the beautiful south of France!

I have a twofold apology, one for the lack of posts recently and another for the fact this one lacks substance as well. To put things simply, I was very unwell for a fortnight prior to this holiday, and while I’ve been here I’ve been too busy exploring to write!

I have four post topics coming your way. The fortified Cité de Carcassonne, The Chateau Comtal within, The four Chateaux des Lastours and finally (though probably the first to be published, as it would be a good introduction,) a post on the Cathar Heresy and their need for fortified strongholds. I may add a comment on the Chateau de Puilaurens, but as I visited it last year, not this, I am not sure quite how much I can recall about it.

I have had a wonderful holiday, and it has healed me more than I could possibly have imagined. I will be returning home rejuvenated and once again excited to continue my studies into our collective history.

I will be writing to you soon!

Jack

Dunnottar, a Fairy Tale. Dragons, Witches and a magic shield of Invincibility.

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Dunnottar reappears after a 300 year absence in the fantastic ‘le Roman de Fergus,’ (The Romance of Fergus,) by Guillaume le Clerc, a mediaeval tale of courtly love that was written in France in the early 13th century. In the story, and I will only tell it briefly in so far as it refers to Dunnottar, Fergus is an aspiring Arthurian knight, whom is sent upon a holy quest to recover a horn and cloak which hang upon the neck of a lion, and to meet in combat a black knight.

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He manages these tasks, but while travelling through Scotland he encounters the beautiful Lady Galiene, with whom he falls deeply in love. When she mysteriously disappears, he is determined to find her and sets off in search. One day, while taking a drink from a fountain tended by a prophetic dwarf, he is told that he can recover and save Galiene if he can obtain a beautiful shield which grants it’s bearer invincibility from all other weapons, which hangs in the Tower of Dunnottar. Fergus deems this an easy task, but he is warned that it is far from so, as the shield can only be won through bodily strength.

When he makes it to Dunnottar, after two months of wandering aimlessly around the north of Scotland, he encounters a woman, old, shaggy and repulsive, blocking his path. She holds in her hand a wicked looking scythe. At the sight of him she rejoices manically, thinking she has him at her mercy. The pathway is too narrow for him to approach on horseback, so he dismounts and walks towards the witch, and throws his spear at her. Wounded, she ‘Howled like an elephant’ so that her voice could be heard for leagues. In a fury, she hurls her scythe towards him, but misses. It becomes trapped in a pillar, where it cannot be removed. Having bested the witch, (or in some versions also an ogress,) who now lies dying, he heads into the tower which “gleams brighter than the moon.”

Considerably uglier than this one.

Considerably uglier than this one.

He does not see the shield until he passes through the hall into a little meadow, where it is hanging upon a tree. However, it is guarded by a mighty serpent, a dragon fearsome yet mercifully sleeping. Fergus manages to grab the shield, but is so dazzled by it’s beauty that he does not notice the waking dragon. Belching fire and flame, it comes towards hims and he is only saved by the shield which allows him protection from the flame and enabled himself to throw himself upon the serpent and destroy it.

This part is totally a rip off of Jason and the Dragon. Bad Guillaume!

This part is totally a rip off of Jason and the Dragon. Bad Guillaume!

Shield in hand, he goes back to his horse and leaves the castle, its slain defenders lying where they fell. He returns to the south of Scotland, where he discovers Galiene is queen of Lothian, and besieged in Roxburgh. With the might of his new shield, he lends his invincible army to the cause and relieves her army, winning the war, and, of course, her hand in marriage.

Dunnottar's tower. Considerably more real than the rest of the story.

Dunnottar’s tower. Considerably more real than the rest of the story.

I included this story for a serious reason, which is to point out that this story is French, written using the legends of Cornwall, and takes place in the north east of Scotland. It is often difficult for us to imagine a global world before the internet or even fast transport, but it existed. The Roman Empire came as far north as Stonehaven, with a 1st century marching encampment called Raedykes just a three miles from the town. Dunnottar, despite having none of the current buildings standing at the time, was clearly famous enough for a french writer to have come across it and know basic facts about it’s location and defensibility. For a small rock’s reputation to have spread so far across the world almost 800 years ago, is nothing short of amazing.

The Development of the Mediaeval Town.

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If a map of medieval Europe is examined, it is quite striking to see the differences in where centres of population would form. Almost exclusively limited within the confines of Italy and the Mediterranean at the beginning of the 11th century, towns rapidly developed along the coasts of the north, in France, England, and the Netherlands. They spread out west along the Mediterranean coast, with Avignon, Barcelona and Granada in Spain taking prominence. More interesting however is the question of why towns didn’t form elsewhere, we see little to no development in the north-east of Europe. This essay will therefore look at the impact of developments in trade and commerce upon the towns which formed.

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To answer the question of how much urban independence could be developed, we must first understand how this essay defines a medieval town or city. It would not do for this essay to be concerned with the multitudes of small villages which dotted the medieval landscape, as they simply did not have the required influence or wealth to be able to play a significant part in the development of self-governance. The early medieval village would usually develop somewhat attached to, or at least located in proximity of a castle, monastery or cathedral, and thus were tied irrevocably with the machinations of the feudal or religious hierarchy which governed them. Providing a place of residence for local farmers, their basic purpose was usually straightforward, such as agriculture or basic industry, and thus the importance of self-governance is not nearly as important to their survival. A town, or indeed city, is much harder to define. While size would not necessarily be necessary, it remains a good indicator of success, and would need to be sufficient to provide a variety of professions and occupations. The city’s’ mark of distinction could lie in it’s buildings and infrastructure; John Bradley argues that the first defining characteristic of a town’s independence can be found with it’s wall and defenses, a distinction backed up by Mason Hammond. These stood as symbols of where the countryside, and by association manorial power, ended and the town itself began. However, perhaps the best definition of a town comes from how it is ruled. Whether by Oligarchy, Guilds, Council of Magistrates or an assembly of citizens, the most successful towns usually derived their power from the people, rather than a ruler or priest claiming “divine sanction.” A town, it could be argued, was the location that the functions of villages came together, a market providing them with luxury goods and opportunities for trade that would otherwise be lost to them as small, relatively remote communities. It was through this trading function that towns were able to create the wealth that made them so desirable, not only to the lords above them, but also to the men and companies which earned it in the first place. It was from this desire to control resources and the ever-increasing amount of money that burghers demanded new rights and privileges for their services, and thus were able to achieve the independence that they desired.

 

In 9th century England, the pattern of urbanisation started with royal policies of establishing towns with easily defended fortifications as a method of regulating local trade and the transfer of money. This was a pattern seen across Europe, in central and eastern countries, the fortifications of princes were attracting people to settle in new crafting and mercantile settlements, attracted by the prospect of safety to carry out their livelihoods in relative security. The lord would provide the land for building, and give some physical and legal protection to the new burghers, stimulating the economy and town towards growth. The plot of land that had been granted would usually then be rented to the new townsman from the lord, giving him a vested interest in the town’s success. It was for this reason that they would try their very best to retain as much power over the inhabitants as they could; indirectly, the burgher’s successes would bring the Lord vast quantities of tax and resources.

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In the 11th century, large towns were almost exclusively located around the Mediterranean sea and into the eastern Islamic territories. Without a doubt, the largest city was Constantinople, the dominant trade centre in which silks, wool and silver were traded by Merchants from as far north as Scandinavia and as south as the African continent. There was still not a single place in the west of Europe that had more than 15,000 inhabitants, though towns were expanding at this time, ready for a rapid growth spurt that would change the maps of the time dramatically. The fortified towns of Bruges and Ghent were holding regular markets by the beginning of the 11th century. This opening of markets in the North West of Europe would prove key to the beginning of international trade. After Alfred the Great of England had been able to re-capture the city of London, which had been all but deserted since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire,  it had been turned into an economic powerhouse of his kingdom, and was able to contribute a full 12% of the entire country’s Danegeld raised in 1018.

 

It was also in this period that some towns were able to begin earning their independence from feudal Lords. In 1180, the town of Dreux was able to agree a certain charter of rights from their local count, Robert. They were granted status as a commune, which released them from their feudal obligations to utilise the Lord’s personal grain mills and from paying taxes to him. They were granted other privileges; the count lost his right to first purchase of the towns wine outwith specific periods, and the 1/3 tax that they had to pay on the sales of their wine was also removed. It was not entirely in the town’s favour however, as they were forced to continue to use his wine press while paying him a fee, which for a major wine-producing area would remain a divisive issue in relations between the count and the burghers. It was, however, a start for the process of independence for Dreux. Grants of this kind would create more wealth for the town, especially through the tax-breaks, which could finance civic projects and investment in mercantile trade. We also see at this time traders being given special rights and exemptions from tolls and customs. England did this especially well; granting export licences which granted safe-conducts and the right to free trade to many merchants of the Meuse, Flanders, the Rhineland, Brabant and Picardy. While motivated primarily for the collection of revenues for the Monarch, (the Wool trade at this point was being very heavily taxed) this encouraged great amounts of traders to come into his ports, bringing luxuries and thus great wealth and prominence to the market towns of England.

 

It was this growth that created the new town and city dominated map of the 13th century. Throughout the 11th century, the weavers of Flanders had started to produce an easily affordable woolen cloth that was far superior to anything else that could be encountered at the time. This led the way to a new era of export for the west of Europe; England was able to grow rich of the export of its high quality wool to Flanders, (of which almost 5500 tons were exported in 1273) which in turn would send it’s cloth all over Europe, as far south as the Italian city states which had once-again flourished. Large harbour towns therefore developed, with London, Ghent and Bruges quickly swelling in population and while this coastal expansion was not quite matched by anything in the interior of those nations, it paved the way for eventual expansion inland. Therefore, it can be argued that the main driving force between town expansion and development in the north of Europe was twofold; towns succeeded where they were most aptly positioned over natural harbours for trade, (water travel being by far the quickest and cheapest method of goods transport,) they also succeeded where the ruling dynasty had located its base, such as London and Paris. The other major location for the growth of towns was to be found around the Italian city states, with Venice, Milan and Genoa having the most marked success in their trading empires. Over the course of the 11th century, the Italians were able to seize control over their home waters and develop an almost monopolised hold over the carrying trade. Through their merchants and form of government, they were well placed to grow independently of the kings and lords around them.

 

By the the 14th century, Europe was dramatically changed. The English Channel was a busy thoroughfare of trade, lined by the power-cities of the North; London, Bruges and Ghent joined by Rouen and Lille in France, with Paris also having grown dramatically to a population of over 50,000 people. The area of Northern Italy home to the city states was the most densely populated region of Europe, home to over 15 towns of over 15,000 inhabitants each, with some; Milan, Genoa, Venice and Florence, having populations exceeding 50,000 inhabitants each. After the success of their carriage ventures, they had moved into banking and coinage, developing a system that quickly became the European standard. The banking establishments of Florence were mainly family companies, lending money to royal creditors and thus gaining significant sway over the courts of the nobles around them. However, banking was a risky business, in 1340 the Bardi, Perruzzi and Acciaiuoli families lost almost all their wealth when the Kings they had been lending to refused to make their repayments. However, they were rapidly replaced by a second wave of bankers, found from the ranks of the Alberti, Ricci, Strozzi and Medici families. With an instinct for self-preservation, businessmen began to spread out their wealth over many investments and projects, therefore reducing the risk of their ventures, seen in contemporary legal documents which would ensure the safety of the funds of all participating investors. Guilds were formed around the various trades, many of which would stand up for their members, though it’s striking that in larger towns and cities a minority of the larger, richer guilds would take control and govern the activities of the lesser corporations. Such developments in business naturally led to further autonomy, with businessmen funding the power-games and wars of kings and emperors through loans and therefore gaining significant leverage over them; leverage which could be exchanged for more rights and independence.

 

Medieval towns primarily developed their independence as a result of wealth being transferred around Europe. It is because of this that we see discrepancies in their success – reliance upon trade for development would ensure that remote agricultural towns would see little change. We see the development of great towns and centres of trade and industry along the English Channel, facilitating the Scandinavian trade in Herring and an Anglo-Flemish cloth trade, bringing great wealth to their respective countries and thus power to the burghers who inhabited them. The city-states of Italy monopolised markets in carriage and eventually in cloth itself, and with little feudal influence to start with were able to act as self-governing bodies from the beginning. The one other purpose we see in a city is only indirectly related to trade and wealth, however. Monarchal power and influence certainly developed whichever town they had their dynastic power base in, and it’s through this that we see the growth of London and Paris, though their attraction to merchants is not to be ignored. Therefore, it is fair to argue that where wealth was accumulated, power over it was desired, and it was from this that we see the development of independence and a merchant class. Wealth created power and afforded influence, giving it’s holders the ability to climb the social ladder by exploiting openings in the nobility in some cases, or at the very least begin to buy freedoms from their Lords via charters. It was not a randomised process; the towns formed where they were required and survived where their purpose could be sustained and not made redundant.

The Bent Entrance.

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If you want to know how deeply my interest in Castles lies, look no further than this post. How many people decide, when they want to write a blog post, that they want to write about something as simple as a corner.

That’s just what I’m about to do however, as a bent entrance was one of the most commonly exhibited defensive features in the mediaeval castle. While especially common among crusader castles, and arab fortifications, the feature can be found throughout Europe in an assortment of variations.

One of the most elaborate bent entrances is to be found at Krak des Chevaliers, in modern day Syria. Here’s a plan of the fortress:

Crak des Chevalier

Crak des Chevalier

If you look to the bottom of the diagram you can see the entranceway, and the passage that followed to take you into the inner ward. Intruders were vulnerable the whole time to attack from several towers and machicolations (stone parapets) above, while being restricted in where they could go, forcing soldiers to walk in a very tight formation where they would be especially weak.

Going back to Dunnottar castle, another complicated entry system exists. After entering through the 14th century Benholm’s lodging, which was itself defended by a stout barricaded door and portcullis combination, an intruder would find themselves immediately confronted by a gun magazine. Navigating past this, they are forced to turn at right angles twice to make it to the next obstacle. During this time, however, they are vulnerable to fire from above on all sides. Should they make it through this killing zone, however, the attacker must make their way through two fortified tunnels, called Pends, before they finally make it up to the top of the castle.

Entrance is in the left of the diagram.

Entrance is in the left of the diagram at point A, Pends are point B.

The castles reliance upon this as it’s sole entrance is obvious by the interior architecture, which would be incredibly vulnerable to anyone already inside. Walls on the interior are half the size of those facing out, and while the 14th century tower may have some defensive capability the 16th century palatial complex has absolutely none.

However, sometimes the bent entrance could be remarkably simple. At Caernarfon, there is evidence that originally there was intended to be a single turn inside the gatehouse. You can imagine how this would have looked by looking at the unusual shape of the gatehouse in this plan:

Gatehouse at I

Gatehouse at I

So there’s a brief introduction to the bent entrance. To recap, it was mainly a way of forcing attackers to follow a prescribed path, usually a bottleneck, in which they would be especially vulnerable to defensive fire from above or to the side.

The Mine and Countermine at St Andrews Castle.

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Europe’s only surviving mine and countermine can be found at St Andrews Castle, in Scotland. It is a fascinating site, providing valuable evidence of how this 16th century siege tactic would work in practice.

St Andrews Castle

St Andrews Castle

It was in 1546 that the castle was under siege, after the dramatic murder of Cardinal James Beaton who had been stabbed then hung naked from the castle walls. He had made many enemies during the reformation, one of the most turbulent periods of Scotland’s past, and his execution of the prominent and charismatic Protestant preacher George Wishart, gave these men the perfect excuse to move against him. His murderers, a group of Fife lairds, occupied the castle afterwards and were supported in their actions by the English.

Scotland’s Regent, James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, ordered his troops to re-take the castle, capture the intruders and regain control of the wayward castle. The siege was to last more than a year, but in November 1546 the French ambassador reported that the besiegers were digging a mine beneath the castle walls in an attempt to undermine and collapse the huge fore tower. The defenders were simultaneously countermining in a desperate attempt to prevent this from ever occurring.

There were two unsuccessful attempts to intercept the mine, located in the rooms now found off the entrance to the castle. It was not easy to work out where the attackers were coming from when you just had the disorientating noise coming through solid rock. They were eventually abandoned and a third shaft was dug to the east of the fore tower.

The first tunnel was inaccurate, swinging too far to the east, and they had to divert the tunnel again to get back towards the mine. They broke through eventually, and were able to repel the besiegers. Afterwards, the mine and it’s countermine were filled in to prevent them ever being used again until they were discovered during building work in 1879. The entrance to the mine can be seen on the far side of the road beside the castle, covered by a manhole cover.

The mine itself is a spacious corridor where one can comfortably stand upright, and it is wide enough to enable pack animals to assist with the removal of the mined rock. It features carved steps, and it is quite easy to traverse. By contrast, the countermine is narrow, twisted and at times you almost must almost crawl to get through, showing the desperation of the defenders as they worked to head off the attack as soon as possible.

Undermining. A brief introduction.

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When a siege was going on for a long period of time, with little end in sight, attackers could turn to a number of ways to force a conclusion. One of these was the technique of undermining, which could in some cases be used to devastating effect upon the mediaeval castle.

In my next post, (which I want to state is much better than this one, this one is awful) we will look at the mine and countermine at St Andrews castle but I felt I should give a general overview of the technique beforehand.

The gist is simple, dig underneath the walls or the keep and then weaken the ground beneath it. When the ground collapses, so too will anything above. This could be done in a number of ways, in the example I am going to use an underground tunnel was dug, with the ground above propped up on wooden supports which could be burned away after the mine was complete. However a similar technique consisted of attackers getting close to the walls in covered siege engines to chip away at the walls, either digging away the foundations or, with more sophistication, digging away under the wall while propping it up with supports that could be burned away later on to ensure a collapse. This was less resource consuming than undermining, however it left the attacking force far more vulnerable to retaliation from attack from those upon the walls.

Undermining a wall.

Undermining a wall.

At Rochester in 1215, a tunnel was driven underneath the south-west tower of the keep by the forces of King John. They were trying to force the surrender of the tower from a group of rebels, who were holding the castle against him. It would be one of the longest sieges carried out in mediaeval England, lasting almost two months. He had tried to breach the castle using conventional artillery, with five siege engines carrying out a continuous barrage of the walls to largely little effect. However, once the outer wall was finally breached, the defenders retreated to the keep, and the barrage resumed with a new target. Eventually, the decision was taken to undermine the keep, with digging beginning in earnest. King John ordered Hugh de Burgh (first Earl of Kent and a very influential advisor) to “send to us with all speed […] forty of the fattest pigs of the sort least good for eating to bring fire beneath the tower.”

Note the round tower of Rochester Castle, built after the original square tower was collapsed.

Note the round tower of Rochester Castle, built after the original square tower was collapsed.

The corpses of these pigs would be used as fuel to ensure that when set alight the wooden supports underground would be destroyed, and the plan was a success. The south-west tower of the keep was brought low in the resulting collapse and, though the defenders attempted to hold out in the other half of the building which was divided by a huge cross-wall, surrender came soon afterwards on the 30th of November.

There were ways to defend against mining, namely ditches which could prevent attackers getting siege engines close to the walls for boring underneath the walls, and the moat which not only kept attackers away from the walls but also ensured any mine would be vulnerable to flooding by groundwater. These are obviously worth remembering, for not every castle was therefore vulnerable to these most devastating of war tactics.

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My Life With Crohn’s, ahead of World IBD Day – 19.5.14.

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I’m moving away from Castles once again to quickly talk about Crohns disease, ahead of World IBD awareness day on Monday. I will be back to talk about undermining fortifications during siege warfare, after you’ve indulged me in this.

In 2008, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. I remember the weeks running up to my diagnosis quite vividly. Our school held ‘Activities Days’ at the end of the academic year for first, second and third years, and I had been scuba diving in the swimming pool at school. Yes, that is as pathetic as it sounds, but following my diving I developed a cold. Over the following weeks, my weight plummeted to around 40kg and I became racked with intense stomach pains, diarrhoea (a word I’m so familiar with I no longer need a dictionary,) and rather heavy bleeding. We started getting very worried, and we saw the GP. This was clearly no ordinary cold.

Digestive System according to Crohns and Colitus UK.  I'd prefer each label to just say

Digestive System according to Crohns and Colitus UK.
I’d prefer each label to just say “This doesn’t work”

I was referred to hospital, and seen the following day in Dundee, where they started testing me. A day later, in Aberdeen, I was admitted to the children’s ward and began fasting for a colonoscopy and endoscopy, where they put cameras up your bum and down your throat respectively, and the following day under general anaesthetic I had the procedure.

I feel this is a good point to say they don’t do me that kindness anymore. For the most recent colonoscopy, I had to use the grin and bear it method. For any of you snarky enough to suggest I do that normally, I’ve never encountered one of those that can go around bends that far inside.

I received my diagnosis the following day. It was incredibly fast, but then I had been sinking fast. I was told I had Crohn’s Disease, an incurable condition that, they told me, was relatively easy to manage and not at all fatal.

Remember this for later, as my whole understanding of my condition came from these words. 

I was put on immunosuppressants, called Aziothiaprine, and the Steroid Prednisolone. Prednisolone is the devil’s drug. It might work in that it can reduce inflammation quite remarkably, but it’s list of side effects takes up several pages and there’s not much you can do to prevent them. When I was this age, I only suffered a few of the lesser side effects, namely terrible acne and a swollen face.

I didn't know whether I'd upload this photo.  It's the only one I have dating from 2009 and it's from when we repainted my walls. The baggy clothes hide a lot so look at my arms, and of course you can see just how the steroids affected my face. I don't bring this one out for visitors, anyway.

I didn’t know whether I’d upload this photo.
It’s the only one I have dating from 2009 and it’s from when we repainted my walls. The baggy clothes hide a lot so look at my arms, and of course you can see just how the steroids affected my face. I don’t bring this one out for visitors, anyway.

When I was on them for the final time this year, I had been on them for 5 months at the maximum dose, and they messed with my head. I was bad-tempered, paranoid, and would quite easily have massive panic attacks at the drop of the hat. Also, they didn’t heal the inflammation that final time, so I’m a little annoyed with them. All the bad, none of the good.

Every drug I ever tried, and there were a lot of them, would only work for a few months at most and then the sh*t would hit the fan again. Liquid diets, biological immunosuppressants that I had to self-inject, infusions which I would have to sit in the hospital to receive over a period of several hours, supplements for the nutrients I just couldn’t absorb were all taken, and all failed eventually. I was proving to be quite a resistant case.

2010, a better year.

2010, a better year.

One of the most effective treatments in the early years was a liquid diet, which I had to take through a naso-gastric tube. There are definitely no pictures of this; I remember running to my guidance teacher the day I found out it was School Picture day to refuse to be involved in any way. On the first day of my 6 week stint of having a bogey-yellow tube sticking out my nose, I stood before my English class to give an assessed talk. Discarding my original (crap) speech about some holiday, I spontaneously spoke about my Crohn’s at some length. Top marks for the talk, but who knows if my teacher just pitied me! However, that was probably the first time that I realised I couldn’t keep my illness totally to myself. Unless I was prepared to explain what I was going through to others, I couldn’t expect them to understand. A first year once asked me in the corridors if I was getting cocaine through the tube. I couldn’t contain my laughter.

In my Undergraduate Gown

In my Undergraduate Gown 2011

However, then I went to university, and it was amazing thanks to the injections of Adalimumab I had to give myself. My health for my first two years was remarkably tolerable. Don’t get me wrong and think it was all sunshine and rainbows but, for the first time, my symptoms were manageable. I was able to go out and drink with my friends, with no thought to my body, I could do literally anything a normal student could and it was brilliant. I went on trips with my friends, I got involved in more things than I could keep track of and I even hitchhiked across Europe for charity. That would be out of the question now! I came off all the medications and for the first time in forever, I was in remission.

In Montpellier, heading towards Barcelona

In Montpellier, heading towards Barcelona in early 2012

However, it didn’t last. Things like that rarely do, it seems.

Last summer, things began to get worse. A potent combinations of stresses and strains hit me hard and my health began to swiftly decline. My return to University in September was not hailed by the drunken debauchery of fresher’s week, instead I had to enjoy life as a teetotaller, drinking cranberry juice in the union as it was one of the few non-fizzy-not-water solutions to my alcoholic avoidance.

I was worst in the mornings, and of course that is when all my classes were. By the end of the semester, I had missed one too many and I was called in to see the Director of Teaching. I had received notice that I had failed a module due to my non-participation, and not even the support of the disability team, the Pro-Dean and the tutor and module coordinator whose classes I had missed was enough to prevent me having to go through the appeal system. Though it was eventually lifted after I had travelled north to get an up-to-date doctor’s letter, the damage was done. Crohn’s responds to stress, and dear God was I stressed.

I was admitted to hospital before Christmas, and it was decided that I wasn’t all that bad though things were definitely going downhill. I was given a new course of drugs and told hopefully this will work. I declined further. It was at this stage that my days started to begin at 4am every day, with my symptoms progressively easing back off towards lunchtime. Ever spent three hours on the toilet? It stops being comfortable after the first 10 minutes and no amount of books can quell the boredom.

I was then admitted a second time, in the final week of January just as classes began to start. I was rushed back up North by my mother and my ex, I’d spent the previous day trapped in my bed unable to move due to muscles pulled in my back from strain. Is it too much info to say I put my back out on the toilet? Probably. Now you know.

I had just had an MRI on the monday and somehow the laxatives I had to take to get a clear picture of my bowels had manage to seriously irritated them. That week was quite easily the worst experience I ever had with my Crohns. Having to choose between intense back pain and making a mess of the bed is not an easy choice to make. (Always the back pain, I hasten to add.)

They treated me with IV steroids for a week and I was released on a liquid diet, a new immunosuppressant called Aziothiaprine (which takes 6-12 weeks to kick in,) my injections and the steroids. I was on literally every drug they could possibly give me at the same time. I was told surgery would probably be inevitable, but I would hopefully be able to stall it with the potent cocktail of drugs I was on.

Still Smiling, but Getting more unwell in February

Still Smiling, but Getting more unwell in February 2014

About five weeks later, on the 7th of March, I had to go in again. I will spare you a day by day account of what happened. I was on IV steroids and to me, it felt like things were easing up, even as my consultant told me that my blood results were getting worse and I was holding myself away from surgery by the very tips of my fingernails. On the Wednesday after admission, I was warned I was entering dangerous ground. Should my bowel perforate, (i.e. explode) I would probably die. I still couldn’t choose surgery though, things felt like they were getting better. On the Thursday, I explained this to my parents. As long I was still feeling like I was getting better, I can’t choose surgery. Also, Crohn’s is manageable, it doesn’t need surgery. Crohn’s is not fatal, it won’t kill me. Also one of my drugs hasn’t kicked in, it could be the miracle that I need.

On the Friday, I woke up with an acute pain in my left side. After an X-ray during which I’d broken down in tears as I personally accepted the situation, my consultant came in for his morning round and his demeanour was different. All the doctors looked somber. One of the ladies actually looked like she was about to cry (and thanks for that, it really helped ME hold myself together, not.) The situation was now at a critical point and should I not elect for surgery they couldn’t guarantee I’d see Monday.

It wasn’t much of a choice for me as both seemed frankly rather awful, but one result was infinitely preferable to those who would be left behind, so I had an ileostomy the following day after my grandparents rushed up to see me. I was quite weak by this point, with no guarantees, so I spent the Friday afternoon gleefully planning my funeral.  I’m not kidding, the mind does funny things when it’s under that kind of strain. I actually found this incredibly enjoyable much to the horror of everyone around me.

I would like to take this opportunity to point out the reality of living with a condition like Crohns. It doesn’t go away, and when nothing ever works to relieve it, it becomes very easy to lose hope. Choosing between life and death seems easy in retrospect for me, and for anyone looking in it must look like the height of melodrama. It’s hard to convey the fact that, to my (evidently seriously depressed) mind at the time, I had just been offered a way out. Life with an ileostomy is not a bad life at all, but it doesn’t seem that way until you’ve had it.

The weeks following my operation have been hard. We have just passed the second month anniversary of the operation. I have had serious complications, including a partial obstruction that for a week had me in more pain than the surgery itself. I had to withdraw from university, losing all the work I had done for courses I seriously cared about, and I lost a job opportunity that would have given me a bit of a leg-up in my field. 4 weeks ago, I separated from my ex-partner, and I lost my best friend.

However, let’s not lose sight of the positives. I have been given me-time for the first occasion in years. I’ve always been too ill to do everything I wanted, and for the first time since I was about 14 I’m genuinely free to use my time as I see fit. This blog, which I neglected for three months before picking it back up last week, is one of the results of that, and it has seen moderate success. Who would ever have thought 7000 people would be interested in the development of a church on an island? I passed my driving theory test, and I am booked on a course which should have me driving properly by the end of June. I have started my work as History President, and I’m hoping that I will go far with that. Also, as everyone knows, I’m never, ever going to get fat. Ha!

With our Sand Dunnottar Castle this Thursday

With our Sand Dunnottar Castle in St Andrews last Thursday

For the past two weeks, would you believe I’ve actually been quite happy? I can go home to the most beautiful town in Scotland and play in the sand, drink cider in the sun, even watch the occasional tornado spin on by, and who’s going to stop me? It’s certainly not going to be my Crohn’s.

https://www.justgiving.com/Jack-Carr

I wasn't kidding about the Tornado. St Andrews on Wednesday.

I wasn’t kidding about the Tornado. St Andrews on Wednesday. RUINED our trip to the beach.