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Craig Peters




PostPosted: Tue 18 Jul, 2017 8:52 pm    Post subject: King John's "Ribbalds"         Reply with quote

I was reading through a translation of the Sverrissaga about the siege of the rock of Tunsberg in 1201 AD, provided by DeReMilitari.org. Part way through the extract, it mentions King John of England sent some troops that the writer refers to as “Ribbalds”:

“In the summer when King Sverri was in Bergen, John, King of the English, had sent him two hundred warriors of those called Ribbalds. They were swift of foot as deer, excellent bowmen, very brave, and did not shrink from evil deeds. King Sverri despatched them to the Uplands, and set over them, as their chief, a brother of Sigurd Skialgi, named Hidi, a man little praised by others. The Ribbalds came down into Haddingiadale, marched by the upper road over Soknadale, and down into Thelamork. Wherever they came they slew every one, young and old, women as well as men. They killed all the cattle they could, and even dogs and cats and every living thing in their way; they burnt, too, all the homesteads they came near. But if people gathered to encounter them, they fled to the fells and inaccessible places, and ever appeared where no one expected them. They plundered homesteads which no hostile force had ever before visited, and committed outrages the like of which no man knew. They came to King Sverri when he was besieging the rock, and ever marched boldly to attack the Bagals, and exchanged shots with them.

One day the Bagals hit a Ribbald with an arrow so that he was instantly slain. The others uttered a loud yell at the sight and shot at the Bagals, running at one time towards the rock, and at another from it. Soon after, one of them shot Viking Nefia with an arrow, which struck him in the throat on the left side and caused his death. He had been a very great warrior.”


What exactly are “ribbalds”?

Etymologically, the word looks as though it is related to the later word “ribald”, which might make sense: the word originally was linked to a particular sort of soldier or mercenaries who were seen as disreputable and vulgar, only to later evolve to mean “referring to sexual things in a vulgar or amusing but crass way”. However, it’s difficult to say whether “ribbald” is an English term, or a Scandinavian one.

The text explicitly acknowledges their skill with a bow, but I think it would be a modern anachronism to link ribbalds as being a specific type of soldier who carried a particular set of weapons (e.g. every ribbald was a bow man). Besides, if the ribbalds were only archers, one might think they might be identified as such. As it stands, my impression is that ribbalds were particularly noted for their use of the bow, but probably made use of other weapons as well. What else do we know, if anything, about their weapons and equipment?

The other question that remains is “Who are the ribbalds, precisely?” Are they perhaps Welsh archers? That would certainly account for their skill with a bow, and their tendency to flee to “fell and inaccessible places”. Or, are they simply a group of routiers/Brabançons? Or could they be some of the Poitevins and other men from the French holdings of the Angevin Empire whom John was known to have brought to England?

There was an article written by Cristabel F. Fiske in 1915 entitled “The British Isles in Norse Saga”. However, the author does not have any useful additional commentary, and writes that the ribbalds “seem to have far outdone, along their own line, the Beserkers themselves” (p. 205). While I am not certain on the current status of beserkers in historiography, my impression is that there is some doubt as to their actual status, especially since there are descriptions of them being resilient to fire and steel, and having the strength of bears or bulls. No such supernatural description is given of the ribbalds.

If anyone has further information about the ribbalds, I would appreciate it.
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Wed 19 Jul, 2017 2:31 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It comes from the Old French ribauld, which comes from riber, which refes to people who indulge in licentious behaviour, which came from a German word referring to prostitutes. By the time the word becomes "ribbald" it seems to refer to rogues or ruffians. The modern word "ribald" refers to licentious behaviour.
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Craig Peters




PostPosted: Wed 19 Jul, 2017 2:56 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Can you comment any more about the soldiers themselves Dan, who or what they were?
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Wed 19 Jul, 2017 8:07 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Best guess is that they are a group of bullyboys and cut-throats who do the king's dirty work.
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Lafayette C Curtis




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PostPosted: Wed 06 Sep, 2017 3:07 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Closest thing I can think of would be the Welsh knife-men at Crecy. Nobody said that these knife-men didn't have or use bows too.
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Chris Friede




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PostPosted: Thu 07 Sep, 2017 2:36 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Just based on the tactics, sounds rather like rangers of some sort. Any reference in payroll records (if they were a mercenary group). I am intrigued as I play the character of John at our local medieval fair.
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Mark Moore




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PostPosted: Thu 07 Sep, 2017 2:54 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I also agree that these fellows were men of questionable reputation, to say the least. I figure that their loyalty could probably be bought even during combat....depending on the size of the purse. My personal character at the 'Fests' is a bit of a rogue mercenary. To quote a phrase: "What's in YOUR wallet?'' Cool .........McM
''Life is like a box of chocolates...'' --- F. Gump
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Lafayette C Curtis




Location: Indonesia
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PostPosted: Sat 09 Sep, 2017 12:02 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Ehh. Nearly forgot that "ribaulds" were attested in continental French records too, basically as undisciplined but opportunistic looters with knives. That was probably how I got reminded of the Welsh knife-men. However, given John's continental connections, his "ribbalds" might also have been French (or Spanish, or whatever) rather than any sort of British.
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