Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair: Rappelling Round Towers in Medieval Ireland

kells 253vThis is just a brief little ditty thrown together in haste –  in reply to a recent highly entertaining and thoughtful blog post by Robert M Chapple: ‘George and the Giant Archaeological Theory’. In it, he implies (somewhat alarmingly) that a) I am level-headed (slander, your honour!) and b) that I may somehow know something about monastic ‘rope-ladders’ in Ireland.

Sadly, I have yet to come across anything tangible involving rope ladders in either archaeology or hagiography, something which is only slightly lessened by my absolute devastation at the lack of early medieval pole vaulting evidence. (Confused? Read the original post.)

In a half-serious moment of clarity, I just had a quick check for old Irish terms for both ‘rope’ and ‘ladder’ in order to get a flavour of the conceptual ways the early medieval Irish may have thought of both. Despite having several terms for each, there seems to be no occasion, or example where both were used together.

Rope was of course used in many early medieval occupations, industries and even seems to have played a part in certain legal ‘tests’ and ‘trials. Interestingly, the only hint of something akin to a ‘rope ladder’ is in Cormac’s Glossary: róe/roaib – ‘withe, rope’ which Stokes translated as ‘perhaps rather a loop of withes or rope for the wooden bar to pass through‘.

Otherwise we have caelach ‘twigs, wattles, rope, plant, flax’; súainem ‘rope, cord, string, thong (Ouch!); loman ‘cord, rope, thong (Ouch, again!), string, leash, bridle, halter; tét – ‘rope; cord; string’ – and  my personal favourite, cadla – ‘rope, cord’ which was apparently associated with, or made from, guts. As cadla is derived from Old Norse kaðall, this must *surely* be the missing etymological link between medieval Hiberno-Norse fare and modern-day Dublin Coddle. [1]

Pull the other one

All of this is mere prelude however to what could be one of the most startling re-discoveries of Early Medieval Ireland. Roberts highlighting of ‘flat monastic faces’ in conjunction with hypothesized round tower access/propelling methods started me thinking. And then it suddenly came to me in a blinding flash of inspiration. I can now proudly reveal stunning new evidence for the true  secret behind the mysterious monastic doorways of Irish Round Towers.

Take a look (above & below) at these well-known depictions of monastic figures engaging in ‘beard pulling’ found within the pages of the Book of Kells. Note the way the beards are knotted together. Tightly knotted, like ‘rope’, wouldn’t you say? See also, the apparent ‘vertical’ depiction, as if one figure is using the others beard to ascend/descend a height.

Now take a look at another example of the same to be found at the bottom of a Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice, Co. Louth (which also has a Round Tower, I’ll have you know).


Muiredach’s Cross, Monasterboice (Colm Moloney, http://knowthyplace.wordpress.com)

Now, finally, take a look at the beautiful Romanesque doorway of Timahoe Round Tower, Co. Laois and in particular, at the capitals of the pillars which depict human heads with intertwining hair. Coincidence? Looking right down at us from the elevated doorway!


Timahoe Round Tower Doorway (Sarah777 / Wiki Commons)

Timahoe - Detail

Detail – Timahoe Round Tower Doorway (Sarah777 / Wiki Commons)

Let me in? Knot by the hair of my chinny chin chin

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the hitherto secret behind ‘monastic rope ladders’ in medieval Ireland alongside the vexed question of just how the high doorways of Irish Round Tower were most likely entered. The answer has been sitting (quite literally) right under our noses, all this time.

->  Shaggy knotted beard ladders! <-

I await the hordes of academic publication enquiries.

[1] May not be *actually* true. By ‘may’, I actually mean ‘not at all’. But what a great line to spin to tourists. Any Dublin eateries out there who might have an inclination, my rates are very reasonable.  Dublin Chamber of Commerce…Call me.

——–Update: September 2014 ——

I am indebted to Liam Hogan, that erudite doyen of early modern Ireland, for bringing to my attention another startling piece of the shaggy knotted beard ladder puzzle…

The plot, and the stubble, thickens…


——Update: January 2016——

Thanks to @duchas_ie for uncovering this valuable piece of evidence of early medieval vaulting/faceplanting onto Round Towers. We’re through the looking glass here, people…

2 thoughts on “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair: Rappelling Round Towers in Medieval Ireland

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