Attila the Hun burst, ferociously and irrevocably, into Western European consciousness in 451AD. Following the route that would be taken by German armies in 1914 and 1940 he led his forces along the banks of the Moselle river, through what is now Luxembourg, and thrust deep into the heart of the Imperial Roman province of Gaul. As he and his men moved westwards they left a trail of death and destruction; a wasteland of corpses, ruined cities and scorched earth.
In truth the Romans had known about the Huns for nearly a century. The stocky little Asiatic bowmen and their hardy steppe ponies had been hanging around the fringes of the Empire since at least 376 when the Emperor Valens, at Constantinople, received notice that a vast horde of refugees, the entire tribe of the Goths, were appearing on the Danube frontier. The refugees, numbering in their hundreds of thousands and clamouring for sanctuary and sustenance within the Empire, presented an intractable enough problem for the bowlegged, irascible and paunchy Valens. But it was the force that was driving these starving and destitute multitudes westward from the grasslands that gave him the most concern. In the words of the historian Ammianus ‘a hitherto unknown race of men had appeared from the remotest corner of the earth like a whirlwind, uprooting and destroying all in its path’.
Since then the Huns had served indifferently as both enemies of Rome and as mercenaries in pay of the Empire. In 388, for example, the Emperor Theodosius invited a band of Huns and their Gothic vassals to fight for him against the British usurper Maximus, the Macsen Wledig of Welsh legend. The Huns and Goths kept Maximus out of Italy, and were such exemplary soldiers that the historian Pacatus wrote ‘O memorable thing! That Huns and Goths answered the roll call, changed guard and rarely needed to be reprimanded. There was no looting, riot and confusion in the normal Barbarian way.’ These were small bands though and they were usually content to return home once their term of service was over, but by 451 the situation had changed. The Huns had their own Emperor now, and they were organised. And this time they were here to stay.
Horsemen from the east were no new occurrence in the Classical world. The pastoral nomad, apparently welded to his saddle and firing with deadly accuracy from his composite recurve bow, was such an ancient phenomenon that he had become embedded in Greek mythology as the centaur: half man, half horse and no mean archer. The Greeks lumped them all together and called them Scythians, and noted that they were a tall folk, well proportioned and with blue eyes and copper or blond hair.
The Huns however were straight off the Altai plateau, and their Oriental features led observers to question whether they were in fact demons and not men at all. To add to their alien appearance the Huns were enthusiastic practitioners of head binding: a process whereby an infant’s skull is artificially elongated by gentle but constant pressure in the months following birth, usually by tight swaddling around the head. This was a very common practice amongst the Huns, and the fashion seems to have spread amongst their allies such as the Alans and the Gepids.
Just for a second glance at your Significant Other, and imagine that his or her cranium extends to thrice or even four times the normal height. Puts it all into perspective really, doesn’t it? One would have thought that such a striking cultural appurtenance would have occasioned remark among contemporary observers, but it is only from archaeology and the remains of Hun skeletons that we know this to be a fact. It is curious to note that there is not a single mention of the practice in any of the detailed and copious accounts of the Huns that we have handed down to us from the authors of late classical antiquity.
In the fateful summer of 451 the Huns moved into the Champagne region of France, and by 21 June were encamped at the junction of the Aube and the Seine rivers on a gently rolling plain near the modern village of Mery-sur-Seine, not far from the town of Chatres. They made a defensive laager of their wagons, some of which were thirty metres wide, bore the large felt tents of their nobles or their harems, and required dozens of oxen to pull them. Their troops, horse archers for the most part but with contingents of heavy Gothic cavalry and renegade Frankish footmen, lined up in front and prepared to give battle.
Facing them was a scratch Roman army under the capable general Aetius, and his Germanic aide Ricimer. The Roman army of the fourth century was very different from that of the Republic and the early Empire. Gone were the iron infantry legions armed with short sword and shield. A late Roman army resembled nothing so much as that of Rome’s inveterate enemy of three hundred years previously: the Persian. The bulk of the army was cavalry and the bulk of the cavalry were horse archers, and the choicest of the corps fought dressed in mail. And a Roman soldier was just as likely to be a Barbarian federate as a Roman citizen, a fact which caused much lamentation amongst many writers of the period. Nevertheless the Roman army was still a formidable machine if handled capably, and Aetius was nothing if not a capable general.
The two sides were equal in numbers, and the battle could go either way. A victory for Atilla would open up to him France and Spain, and signal the end of the Western Empire. It would also, in all likelihood, have prevented the rise of the Successor States, the barbarian kingdoms that formed to fill the political vacuum left by the withering of Imperial power. There might, for example, have been no Charlemaine of the Franks to lay the foundations of Germany and France, and the political map of modern Europe might look very different indeed. It is even possible, to paraphrase Gibbon, that today the dreaming yurts of Oxford would proclaim to a a people with artificially enlarged crania the truth and sanctity of the revelations of Tengric Shamanism. But I digress.
In the event the two armies fought each other to a standstill. Attila charged his men frontally at the Romans and did not use his horse archers to harry their flanks, and the battle was a single general melee for possession of a low sloping ridge in the middle of the field. At nightfall the two sides disengaged and counted their dead. Aetius and Attila remained glowering at each other for a few weeks but took no offensive action, and then a crisis in a distant part of his empire called Attila away. The massive wagons were loaded up and trundled off unmolested, and peace descended on the French countryside once more.
Thus the Huns. But there is a small thing which has always puzzled me about this episode. We find it in the works of Ammianus Marcellinus, from some six decades prior to the above battle. Writing with the breezy certainty of a chap who has never been within two hundred miles of an actual Hun, and who by the grace of God never intends to, Ammianus has a great deal to tell us about them that is interesting and which may even be true.
We learn from him much about the Huns’ appearance, although he does not broach the whole head binding thing, and their habits. He tells us a lot about their government, customs and as much of their history as they themselves knew, for the origins of the Huns were unknown even to themselves. And then, right in the middle of a sensible and scholarly discourse, he suavely informs us that they made their clothes from the skins of mice.
The mouse is not a large animal, wild species average at about an inch and a half in body length excluding the tail. Allowing for trimming, and shrinkage during the curing and tanning process, you would be lucky to get a square inch of usable mouse hide per animal. From the cuff to the knee of one leg of my trousers (C&A own brand Men’s Slacks, 38R, beige, twenty five quid a pair and a bargain at the price) is sixteen inches, and the whole is effectively a cylinder with a radius of four inches. I know this to be so as I have just taken them off, laid them out on the floor and measured them, then put them back on again.
This gives us a surface area of five hundred and two square inches for half of one lag of a pair of trousers. I am fairly sure that the Huns were not the sort of chaps who would have worn flares, but we can say with some confidence that it would take at least two thousand mouse pelts to knock up a pair of strides for a discerning Hun.
Now I have known many Heads of This and CEOs of That who upon retirement have taken up some hobby which involves a plethora of beguiling minutiae, such as fishing or model railways, and perhaps this was something of that order. Raising or hunting two thousand field mice, skinning them with minute little flensing knives and drying their skins on tiny little racks, to say nothing of the fine needlework skills required to tailor a mousehide garment, would certainly while away a few leisure hours. But for a busy, on-the-go Barbarian Warlord with a hectic schedule of rapine and pillage and barely a window in his Filofax? Oh, no, no, no! The notion is absurd, dear Boy! Simply absurd! We must look elsewhere for a solution to this problem.
Quoting from memory from my Bible (Tyndale’s translation of 1526, the only one that matters) in Leviticus 11 I am forbidden from eating, amongst many other animals, the badger. Now this has been a Biblical injunction with which I have always been happy to comply. In His infinite wisdom, the Creator went out of His way to make the badger as unappetising a creature as possible. He (the badger) is rank, feisty and not amenable to domestication. I would have to be in very dire straits indeed to consider going mano a mano with a badger in a moonlit glade as an acceptable way to obtain a meal. Why, then, were the priests of the Tribe of Levi so concerned lest a morsel of badger meat pass my lips?
They were not in the slightest, largely because none of them had ever seen a badger or knew what one was. The badger is not, and never has been, a resident of the Holy Land. Leviticus is referring to a different animal entirely, probably the Palestinian Mole Rat. But as Tyndale himself had never seen one of these either he was none the wiser.
This is the class of error in translation known as Localisation: the difficulty of articulating into a language a thing or concept which does not exist in that language. There is, for example, a Japanese word -Yugen. An incomplete translation of this would be “a profound and mysterious sense of the illimitable beauty of the Cosmos and at the same time a serene acceptance of the inevitability of human suffering within it” and even then you’d barely be halfway there. If pressed to translate this little beauty on the hoof, I would wave my hand airily and come up with something along the lines of “the feeling you get after six pints of lager” then move swiftly on. Thus by a similar process did Tyndale arrive at his badger, and Ammianus his field mouse.
So now all we have to do is find a more reasonable candidate for the source of Attila’s trousers, and I believe I know exactly the right chap. Allow me to introduce to you the Altai Marmot. He is a ground-dwelling herbivore, so the confusion with mice is understandable, although he is the size of a large domestic rabbit and thus presents a reasonable pelt. More crucially, since time immemorial, he has served the peoples of the region between the sky blue waters of the Syr Darya river and the shores of the Aral Sea in much the same way as the buffalo served the American Indian.
No part of animal was wasted, he provided food and clothing, his bones made needles and his sinews made cords. Even today he is such a staple of the local cuisine that international fast food chains setting up in the area found it wise to include him on their otherwise homogeneous menus. In the takeaways of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan you can dine on a McMarmot Happy Meal or a big bucket of Southern Fried Marmot.
The marmot population is also the natural reservoir of the Bubonic Plague virus. It has long been theorised that the Black Death originated in the Altai and travelled west along the Silk Road, and as recently as 2018 a family in Mongolia ate marmot meat that was not thoroughly cooked and died from the disease.
Therefore, Comrades, it is my assertion that the marmot is a humble little critter, but one whose impact on the course of human events is belied by his small stature and sedentary habits. And furthermore that we are unlikely to have heard the last from the little fellow yet.
I leave the floor open for rebuttal. Thank you for your attention.
© bobo 2020
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