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Medieval Sourcebook:
Odericus Vitalis: On Henry I
From the Ecclesiastical History

[Burr Introduction]

In The Prince, Machiavelli warns those who conquer territories that they will have to kill off a good deal of the old leadership, and he advises them to get the slaughter over all at once, early in the game. After the battle of Hastings William the Conquerer did just that, not through design but simply because the Anglo-Saxon nobles continued to resist until he had destroyed most of them. Thus his immediate successors found that this part of their work had been done for them. Their problems came from their fellow Normans and from one another. William the Conquerer's son and successor, William Rufus, had to defeat his brother Robert, the duke of Normandy, in order to claim his crown. When William died in 1100, his brother and successor Henry also had to do battle with brother Robert. It was also rumored that William's death in a hunting accident was arranged by brother Henry. Moreover, William and Henry both had to contend with the rambunctious Norman noble families that had crossed the channel with William the Conquerer and been granted large holdings as their share of the spoils. These barons were anxious to rule their territories as independently as possible and were happy to stir up conflict within the royal family in order to keep it weak.

William Rufus ruled for thirteen contentious years before participating in that fateful hunting trip which endied when he became the principal game. It was brother Henry I who made real progress toward consolidating royal power. He did it partly by developing what we would think of as an administration. He surrounded himself with able subordinates. (Ordericus Vitalis accuses him of promoting men of low origin to noble status as a reward for their goveling. Others would say he accepted talent where he found it.) It was these subordinates who produced the innovations that allowed a more efficient, centralized government. For example, early in his reign a cleric named Roger, from Avranches, was brought to the king's notice. Henry sent for Roger and made him chancellor, then assigned him to supervise the king's finances. Roger had brought with him a new kind of abacus or calculating machine, one that involved manipulating counters on a checkered cloth laid out like a chessboard. This abacus was adopted for use in collecting taxes, and twice yearly the sheriffs, who collected taxes in the various shires, had to gather at the royal treasury and render their accounts. They did so by standing at the chessboard (ad scaccarium) while the clerks did calculations. The phrase ad scaccarium eventually worked its way into English as "exchequer," thus providing a name for the administrative division in charge of collecting revenue.

That was not the only innovation. During Henry's reign we find a gradual shift toward specialization. Whereas in William's day the business of government was carried on by a more or less amorphous group that did what needed doing, by the end of Henry's reign we find specific offices with specific functions: chancellor, treasurer, chamberlains, constable, marshal, justiciar. Records of government were being produced and stored. These were the so-called pipe rolls, one of which from Henry's reign (from 1130) has survived.

Historians tend to be interested in development, how we got from there to here. Thus these administrative developments are the side of Henry's reign on which they concentrate. Henry would have seen it differently, and so did the chroniclers of his day. In his eyes and theirs, he was a tough feudal monarch whose major business activity consisted in subduing enemies, and whose major recreational activities were hunting and sex. The selections offered here show him in that light. They suggest what a violent time the twelfth century was.

The author, Ordericus Vitalis, was born in 1075, the son of a Norman cleric and an Anglo-Saxon mother. His father, Odelerius, had come to England during the conquest with Roger of Montgomery, who became Earl of Shrewsbury. As a reward for his services, Roger gave Odelerius the church of St. Peter, just outside the gates of Shrewsbury, and Odelarius lived there with his family until, on pilgrimage to Rome in 1082, he vowed to create a monastery around his church and devote not only himself but two of his three sons to the monastic life. The Shrewsbury monastery was ready for inhabitants in 1087,(1) but by that time little Ordericus was in another monastery at Saint-Evroul in Normandy. He had been sent there in 1085 at the age of ten and would spend his remaining fifty-six years there, except for a few brief journeys and stays in dependent priories of the Saint-Evroul abbey.

Fifty-six years in a monastery might seem to place Ordericus at somewhat of a disadvantage as a historian, but it did not. In this period monasteries were important cultural centers, and Saint-Evroul was known for its intellectual attainments. Moreover, even if Ordericus could not go out into the world, the world came to Saint- Evroul. He was remarkably well informed.

The following selections are my translations. The entire Latin text of this part with a good translation can be found in The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, edited and translated by Marjorie Chibnall, Volume VI, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978).

In the year of our Lord 1102, the tenth indiction, King Henry summoned the powerful Earl Robert of Bell&ecircme to his court, accused him of committing forty-five offenses in deed or word against him and his brother the duke of Normandy, and ordered him to respond publicly concerning each. For a year he had had Robert watched. All his evil deeds had been carefully investigated by private spies and fully described in writing. Once Robert had asked for permission to go and consult with his people, as is customary, and on receiving it had left the court, he realized that he could not possibly clear himself of the charges, so he quickly leapt on his horse and fled, panic-stricken and breathless, to his castles. The king waited with his barons for Robert's reply until a royal servant brought him the news the earl had fled. The king was angry at having been deceived, but he knew that the day of vengeance would undoubtedly come. Therefore he publicly condemned Robert as a man who, having been publically accused, had not cleared himself as the law required, and pronounced him a public enemy unless he returned to face judgment. Once again he summoned the rebel to court, but the latter flatly refused to come. Instead he strengthened the ramparts and walls of all his castles and called on his Normans kinsmen, the alien Welsh, and all his allies to assist him. The king, however, summoned the army of England,(2) besieged Arundel castle, which stands near the sea-coast, constructed castles, and left officers there with his household troops for three months.

Meanwhile the garrison responsible for defending Arundel castle humbly asked the king for a truce so that they could ask their lord to give them either reinforcements or permission to surrender. The king agreed and messengers from the garrison sought Robert in the land of the Mercians. When they found him they anxiously revealed how formidable was the royal power would be. He was there building a very strong castle at Bridgnorth on the river Severn, and was unsuccessfully seeking allied troops to defend it. His heart sank when he heard his men ask to be released from their obligation, but since he was powerless to help them he absolved them from their allegiance and in bitter grief authorized them to make peace with the king. When the envoys returned the garrison gladly surrendered the castle to the king, who received them kindly and honored them with a great many gifts.

The king then led his army to the castle of Blyth, which had formerly belonged to Roger of Bully. Almost immediately the garrison came out rejoicing to meet him, acknowledging him with joy as their natural lord. After this much had been accomplished the king allowed the people a short rest, and the bulk of the magnates stood in awe of his prudence and courage.

Meanwhile the king sent envoys to Normandy, and informed the duke(3) in forthright letters how Robert had incurred forfeiture to them both and had secretly fled his court. He then reminded him that according to the treaty they had made in England they should both punish severely anyone who betrayed either of them. The duke therefore gathered the army of Normandy and besieged the castle of Vignats, which was defended by Girard of Saint-Hilaire. The garrison were hoping for a strong assault, because they were ready to surrender the castle in that case. They could not surrender honourably without any resistence whatsoever or they would be considered faithless deserters, but because the duke was indolent and soft, and lacked the firmness proper to a prince, Robert of Montfort and other fellow conspirators, who were divided among themselves, deliberately set fire to their own tents, created turmoil in the army, and fled the scene without anyone pursuing them. In this way they forced others with ill will toward the hateful [Duke] Robert to join them in their shameful flight. The garrison saw the disgrace of the Norman army and howled derisively after them. From that time, having little to fear, they waged cruel war throughout the HiŽmois. Robert of Grandmesnil, Hugh of Montpinon, Robert of Courcy and their men resisted the fierce brigands as well as they could, and struggled to defend their country. But those public enemies, drawn by desire for booty, grew more and more savage and, as proud possessors of Ch‰teau Gontier, Fourches, and Argentan, were excessively outraged if any of their neighbours even dared to bark at them without support from the duke. So they plundered the goods of the peasants all over the province and, when they had taken everything, burnt down their homes.

The king of England, however, was not sunk in sloth like his brother. He gathered all the troops of England in the autumn and, leading them into the region of Mercia, besieged Bridgnorth for three weeks. Earl Robert had withdrawn to Shrewsbury and committed Bridgnorth castle to the care of Roger, son of Corbet, Robert of Neuville, and Ulger the huntsman, with eighty mercenary knights under them. He had also made a treaty with the Welsh, and entered into alliance with their kings, Cadwgan and Iorwerth, the sons of Rhys. He sent on frequent raids to harass the king's army with their forces. He had disinherited William Pantulf, a loyal and seasoned knight, and had driven him from his presence even though he offered his services at a moment when Robert deperately needed them. So William, rejected by Robert, went over to the king, who knew his brave spirit from experience and welcomed him gladly. He immediately put him in command of two hundred knights and gave him custody of Stafford castle, which was in the neighbourhood. He did more harm to Robert than anyone else, and resolutely supplied both counsel and arms until Robert had been brought low.

The earls and magnates of the kingdom , however, met and discussed fully how to reconcile the rebel with his lord. For they said, 'If the king subdues a mighty earl by force and carries his enmity so far as to disinherit him, as he is now trying to do, from that moment on he will trample on us like helpless servant-girls. Let us work hard to reconcile them through a legitimate solution that profits our lord and our fellow earl alike. In that way we can put both in our debt.' So on a certain day they all went to the king and, in an open field, seriously broached the subject of peace, trying to soften the king's severity with a number of arguments. At that moment three thousand knights from the countryside were standing on a near-by hill and, knowing well enugh what the magnates were up to, they shouted loudly to the king, 'Henry, lord king, don't trust these traitors. They're trying to deceive you and undermine the rigor of royal justice. Why listen to men who urge you to spare a traitor and leave unpunished a conspiracy against your life? Look, we all stand loyally by you and are ready to obey you in all things. Assault the fortress relentlessly, pressure the traitor relentlessly from all sides, and make no peace with him until you have him in your hands, dead or alive'

These words heartened the king, and he soon withdrew. The seditious lords' attempt came to nothing. Henry then sent for the Welsh kings through William Pantulf and, by disarming them with gifts and promises, cautiously won them and their forces from the enemy's side to his own. He also sent for the three chief castellans(4) and swore before all that, unless they surrendered the castle to him within three days, all of them that he could capture would die with a noose around their necks. Terrified by the king's resolve, they started to look into to ways of preserving their health and sent for William Pantulf, a neighbour of theirs, to hear his suggestions. He attempted to act as a mediator between them and the king and, in well-chosen words, urged them to surrender the castle to their lawful king, promising on the king's behalf that he would augment their estates with a hundred pounds' worth of land. The [feudal] garrison, considering the interests of all, agreed to this and submitted to the king's rather than incur the dangers of further resistence. Then, with the king's consent, they sent an envoy to their lord Robert, to inform him that they could no longer stand up against the violence of the unconquered king. The mercenary knights, however, knew nothing about the peace which all the feudal garrison and burgesses(5) , not wishing to die, had made without consulting them. When they heard the unwelcome news they were indignant and, hastily seizing their weapons, tried to put a stop to the peace-making. Therefore the feudal garrison forcibly confined them in a part of the castle and, amid general rejoicing, welcomed the king's troops with the royal standard. Since the mercenaries had kept faith with their master as was fitting, the king gave them freedom to leave with their horses and arms. As they rode out through the besieging forces they cried out in grief, loudly complaining that they had been betrayed by the plotting of the feudal garrison and the leaders of the burgesses, and called the whole army to recognize the deceit of these plotters, so that their fate would not bring contempt on other mercenaries. When Robert heard that the strong fortress of Bridgnorth in which he had placed such great trust had surrendered to the king he was very upset and, practically driven out of his mind, did not know what to do next. The king commanded his troops to go by way of Huvel hegen and besiege to the town of Shrewsbury, which stands on a hill encircled on three sides by the river Severn. The English call a certain path through the wood Hovel hegen, which may be translated as 'evil path' or 'road'. For a mile the road passed through a deep ravine, strewn with huge boulders, so narrow that two horsemen could barely ride abreast, and was overshadowed on both sides by a thick wood in which archers used to lie hidden and unexpectedly send javelins or arrows whistling down to wound passers-by. At that time there were more than sixty thousand foot-soldiers(6) in the expedition. The king ordered them to cut down the wood with axes and make a much wider road, both for his use and for all travellers ever afterwards. The royal command was quickly obeyed, the wood was cleared, and the many workers produced a very wide, level way.

When Robert heard about this he was terrified. Seeing disasters all around him, he was brought low and forced to beg for mercy from the unconquered king. The stern king, however, remembering all the wrongs Robert had commited, resolved to hunt him down with a huge army, and press the attack until he recognized that he was beaten and submitted entirely to the king's judgment. Robert, driven to despair by his wretched fate, took the advice of friends and went out to meet the king as he approached the town, confessed his treason, and handed over the keys of the town to the conqueror. Thc king confiscated Robert's whole honor(7) as well as the estates of the vassals who had stood by him in his rebellion, but allowed him to leave unharmed with his horses and arms, and granted him a safe- conduct through England to the sea-coast. All England rejoiced as the cruel tyrant went into exile, and many, fawning on the king, congratulated him saying, 'Rejoice, King Henry, give thanks to the Lord God, for you have begun to rule freely now that you have conquered Robert of Bell&ecircme and driven him out of your kingdom.'

After Robert was exiled the realm of Albion remained in peace, and King Henry reigned prosperously for thirty-three years, during which time no one again dared to rebel against him in England or hold any castle against him. Robert, however, sailed over to Normandy full of rage and grief, and savagely attacked with fire and sword those of his compatriots who had tried to aid their weak lord.(8) Like the dragon of whom John the apostle writes in the Apocalypse, who was cast out of heaven and ferociously vented his fury on the dwellers on earth, this fierce battler, driven from Britain, vented his anger on the Normans. He pillaged and then burned their estates, subjecting all the knights and other persons whom he could capture to death or mutilation. He was so cruel that he would rather torture his prisoners than get rich on the ransoms offered for their release.

Robert's brothers, Roger the Poitevin and Arnulf, were wealthy earls in England, and had been richly endowed with great honors through the influence of their father, Earl Roger. Arnulf had married the daughter of an Irish king named Murchertach, and hoped to secure his father-in-law's kingdom through her. Excessive greed by which men seek more than they should have often leads to the sudden loss of their just acquisitions. Because of Robert's evildoing the mighty king of England withdrew his favour from all his children and kin, and decided to root them all out of the kingdom. Thus he looked for reasons to complain about the two brothers and, when he found them, exploited them as fully as possible. Eventually he managed to disinheritthem and drive them out of Britain. So ruthless was he in his vengeance that he pitilessly deprived the nuns of Almenches of the land which the first Earl Roger had given them, because the abbess, Emma, was a sister of the earls Robert, Arnulf, and Roger. He granted it to Savaric, son of Cana, in return for military service.

When these men had been expelled from England, evil increased rapidly in Normandy, and for three years innumerable atrocities were committed. Many villages were depopulated and churches were burnt to the ground with the people who had fled to take refuge in them, as children fly to their mother's breast. Almost all Normandy had risen against Robert and united in one sworn bond to resist him, but this body could offer no effective resistance against such a bandit without a responsible head. Robert was crafty and strong, and he had already collected great wealth in the thirty-four powerful castles that he had built to support his rebellion. He alone took possession of his paternal inheritance, and gave no share of it to the brothers who had been disinherited on his account. So Roger withdrew to the castle of Charroux, which was in his wife's patrimony,3 and remained there until he grew old and died, leaving honourable sons to succeed him. Arnulf, outraged at all the struggles he had endured to no purpose on his brother's behalf, went over to the duke, seized the castle of Almenches by surprise, and surrendered it to him, and took with him a number of his brother's supporters. As a result the region of SŽez was greatly disturbed. Many men of the province took Arnulf's part and deserted Robert, handing over their castles to the duke's supporters. Robert, abandoned by his own brother, scarcely dared to trust anyone; since he himself was a figure of terror to almost everyone he doubted the loyalty even of those who still stood by him.

In the month of June the duke's retainers gathered together in the nunnery and, eager to plunder the region, turned the consecrated buildings into stables for their horses. Getting wind of this, Robert rushed to the spot and, setting fire to the buildings, burnt the nunnery to the ground. He took prisoner Oliver of Fresnay and many others; some he subjected to the misery of a long, hard imprisonment, and the rest he condemned to death or amputation of bodily parts. Duke Robert came to Exmes with the army of Normandy and should have helped his supporters. At that time Roger of Lacy was captain of the knights, and under his command Mauger Malherbe was in charge of the castle of Exmes. Many were happy to see that disaster threatened the hateful tyrant and eagerly assembled to attack him. William, count of Evreux, and Rotrou, count of Mortagne, Gilbert of Laigle, and all the men of Exmes had plotted together against him, but they could find no way of taking vengeance in a way that befit the harm he had so often inflicted on them. Nevertheless, Robert of Saint-C&eacuteneri and Burchard his steward and Hugh of Nonant had stood up to him for a long time, and more than all the other Normans inflicted losses and injuries on him.

When the duke arrived with his army Robert drew up his battle lines, tested his indolent lord in many ways, then boldly attacked him on the causeway and put him to flight, capturing William of Conversano, the brother of Countess Sibyl, and many others. The more spirited Normans were overcome with shame because, after triumphantly conquering foreign peoples in barbarous regions, they were now themselves conquered and put to flight in the bosom of their own land by one of its sons. Robert, exhilirated by these events, grew even fiercer, and from that day he held the duke in contempt and attempted to subject all of Normandy to himself. The natives of that region, lacking a leader, could not resist the harsh tyranny of the warlike count and bowed their necks unwillingly to his yoke, supporting him out of fear rather than love, and with the help of his supporters waged merciless war against their enemies in the area. So as the duke became steadily weaker Robert grew more and more deadly; and as knights in the region came over to his side he took the castle of Exmes, and also captured Chateau-Gontier and a number of other castles round about.

After the nunnery of Almeneches had been burnt as was been described, the defenseless community of nuns was scattered in great distress. Each took the course fortune allowed her. Some retired to the homes of kinsfolk, others went to friends. Emma, the abbess, fled with three nuns to Saint-Evroul and lived there for six months in the chapel where the blessed father Evroul had devoted himself in solitude to heavenly meditation. The following year, however, she returned to her own church and, with the help of God and good Christians, toiled to restore the ruins. She lived for about ten years afterwards and in that time patiently rebuilt both the church of the Virgin and Mother and the conventual buildings, and brought back to the monastic enclosure all the nuns who had been dispersed. After her death Matilda, the daughter of her brother Philip, succeeded her, and laboriously restored the monastery with all its buildings after it had been unexpectedly burned a second time.


In the same year(9) Eustace of Breteuil, the king's son-in-law, was repeatedly urged by his countrymen and kinsmen to break with the king unless Henry agreed to restore to him the castle of Ivry, which had belonged to his ancestors. The king, however, put off granting his request for the present but promised to do so in the future, and won back his support with fair words. Moreover, because he did not wish to be on bad terms with Eustace (for he was one of the most powerful nobles of Normandy, who was supported by friends and vassals and had strong castles) Henry attempted to make him even more trustworthy and faithful by giving him as a hostage the son of Ralph Harenc, who had custody of the castle, and receiving in return as hostages Eustace's two daughters, who were his own granddaughters. But Eustace ill-treated the hostage he received. On the advice of Amaury of Montfort, who was cunningly plotting to stir up more trouble and made Eustace a great many promises on oath which he never fulfilled, he put the boy's eyes out and sent him back to his father, who was a knight of great valour. The angry father went to the king and reported the ill treatment of his son. The king was deeply saddened by it and handed over his two granddaughters, so that Ralph might take vengeance immediately. With the permission of the angry king Ralph Harenc took Eustace's daughters and avenged his son by cruelly putting out their eyes and cutting off the tips of their nostrils. And thus, alas! innocent childhood suffered for the sins of the fathers, and the feelings of both parents were roused by the suffering and maiming of their offspring. Finally Ralph, having been comforted by the king and honored with gifts, returned to his custody of the castle at Ivry and sent to Eustace news of the vengeance exacted upon from his daughters through the king's severity. Both father and mother grieved on hearing that their daughters had been blinded, and Eustace fortified his castles of Lire and Glos, Pont Saint-Pierre and Pacy, carefully guarding the gates to prevent the king or his men from gaining entry. He sent his wife Juliana, who was the king's daughter by a concubine, to Breteuil, and provided her with the knights necessary to defend the castle.

The burgesses, however, because they were loyal to the king and did not wish to provoke his anger in any way, knew that Juliana's arrival would be injurious to many of them and they immediately sent a message urging the king to hurry to Breteuil. The provident king, bearing in mind the saying of the bold Curio to Caesar about the business of war, "No more delay; what's ripe is ill deferred," on hearing the burgesses' came immediately to Breteuil and, finding that the gates were readily opened for him, entered the town. He thanked the loyal inhabitants for the fealty they had shown, and forbade his knights to take any plunder there. Then he besieged the castle in which his impudent daughter had shut herself up.

Juliana was now extremely anxious and unsure what to do. She was certain that her father, knowing the situation, had arrived in a rage against her and would not raise the siege now in place around the castle until he had triumphed. Nevertheless, as Solomon says, 'There is no wickedness like a woman's wickedness,'(10) and in the end, plotting to raise her hand against the Lord's anointed, she treacherously asked to speak to her father. The king, ignorant of the woman's trick, came to meet with her, while his accursed child hoped to murder him. She had a cross-bow already cocked and shot a bolt at her father, but God protected him and she missed. The king immediately ordered that the castle drawbridge be destroyed, so that no one could enter or leave. Juliana, seeing that she was completely surrounded and that no one was going to help her, surrendered the castle to the king, but could could not persuade him to allow her free departure. Indeed by the king's order she was forced to leap down from the top of the wall, with no bridge or support, and fell ignominiously, with bare buttocks, into the depths of the moat. This happened at the beginning of Lent, in the third week of February, when the castle moat was full to overflowing with winter rains, and the frozen waters naturally struck numbing cold into the tender flesh of the fallen woman. The unlucky female warrior shamefully extracted herself from the predicament as best she could and, withdrawing to her husband who was then at Pacy, gave him a realistic account of her unpleasant experience. The king summoned the burgesses, praised them for preserving their fealty, rewarded them with gifts, promised more, and entrusted the castle of Breteuil to their care.

Later, seeing all would soon be lost, Eustace and Juliana threw themselves on the king's mercy.

Eustace and his wife Juliana consulted friends, and on the advice of those friends they hurried to the siege, entered the king's tent barefoot, and fell at his feet. The king, taken by surprise, said to them, 'Why have you, who have provoked me with so many injuries, dared to approach me without a safe conduct?' To which Eustace replied, 'You are my natural lord. Therefore, my lord, I come to you without fear to offer my service loyally to you, and to make whatever restitution for my misdeeds you in your compassion may judge to be fitting.' Friends were present to intercede for the king's son-in-law. Richard, the king's son, also pleaded his sister's cause. Mercy, indeed, softened the king's heart towards his daughter and son-in-law, and he grew more benevolent. So, pacified, the father-in-law said to his son-in-law, 'Juliana may return to Pacy, and you shall come with me to Rouen and there hear what is my pleasure.' The king's command was obeyed without delay, and the king addressed Eustace in this way, 'In exchange for the honor of Breteuil, which I have given to your kinsman Ralph the Breton, whom I have found most loyal and faithful against my enemies in times of great need, I will give you an annual payment of three hundred marks of silver in England.' Afterwards Eustace Fortified Pacy with walls and watch-towers, and lived for more than twenty years, enjoying great wealth. Juliana some years later abandoned the self-indulgent life she had led for the religious life and, becoming a nun, served the Lord God in the new abbey of Fontevrault.


(1) Thus creating the monastery that serves as the site of the Brother Cadfael mystery series by the contemporary author Ellis Peters. The series is set in the reign of Henry I's successor Stephen.

(2) The account of the campaign indicates that this included the feudal host, the fyrd, and the king's household troops. The first refers to those knights who owed service as Henry's vassals; the second to those who were called up on the basis of the king of England's traditional right to summon able-bodied men to battle in time of need; and the third would be mercenaries in the king's pay.

(3) Robert Curthose, the king's brother.

(4) I.e. the three men in charge of the major castles: Ulger the Huntsman, Roger son of Corbet, and Robert of Neuville.

(5) I.e. middle-class, non-noble, non-combattants.

(6) This is, to say the least, a remarkably high number. Chroniclers tend to inflate their figures on occasion.

(7) I.e. all the lands he held from the king, which would mean pretty much all the lands he held in England.

(8)I.e. the duke.

(9) Actually this anecdote is much later. The year is 1119. (10)Ecclus. 25:26.


Translation by David Burr []. See his home page. He indicated that the translations are available for educational use. He intends to expand the number of translations, so keep a note of his home page.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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Paul Halsall, Jan 1996, updated October 1998

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