Sunday, July 4, 2010
Gentle reader, with your leave I shall correct an omission I had made in telling you of the guests at my merry Yule feast. Oftimes now I have mention those twain who harvest the fruit of the sea that fills my hungry travelers’ trenchers and bowls. Yet did I fail to tell you the name of that harvester of the forest and fields, my good friend Osmund the Hunter. For though the fish be aplenty most times of the year if Alduin and Swedferd and their fellows choose to seek them far and near, ‘tis a merit to Osmund who brings wild game and birds that fill the nostrils with a rich treasure and the mouth a hearty supper e’en when game is scarce.
Nor could he be more unlike to the merry fishermen could Osmund! He is a quiet man, not at all glum but passing solitary. His profession suits his temperament. Most happy is he to spend his hours alone amid the beasts of the woodland and also the heath and fens nearby. He is not loathe to spend time with his fellow man, but oft seeks his own counsel. When a company is gathered, as any evening at my tavern, you may yet find Osmund within or if the days are fair and the game is abroad, you shall not, but shall you see him soon with a brace of partridge and a smile.
Nor does this good man bring only game meant for the spit or firepit. Though most of the comes with fowl such as pigeons, cranes, grouse, or wild hens, or small game like squirrels, wild pigs and hare, he may as well have in hand a fox, weasel or badger for the fur and upon a time he has brought home the deep warm pelt of a wolf.
Upon a cold evening not long ago good Osmund sat to share a bowl of ale with me at the table nearest our hearth. Few others wished to brave the chill so stayed away to warm their toes at their own coals, so Osmund and I shared the hall with yet but two or three travelers who hunched o’er their bowls of potage happy to have found refuge for that one night at least. Osmund had brought me hares and quail , and they were now upon the table in the kitchen awaiting my maids’ attentions in the morning and my guests’ bellies upon the morrow’s supper.
Osmund, who speaks but little on most occasions, did recall to me the time, many years ago, when our lord King was at war in Affynshire and all the fyrd* was called up to fight at his brave side. Osmund himself, a stout bowman as it is how he makes his living, was required to go, and proud to serve his King as well. But well do I remember long months of little game upon the trestle as Osmund’s gift with the bow was to hunt the enemy. Full sore was he to have to kill another man, for ‘tis a waste, he says, when his bow could be a-bringing hearty victuals to his neighbours’ pots and not just a soul to God’s own hall. But farm and smithy and shop and more likewise emptied of its young men and many came not again.
I did ask my friend about the game that the King and his housecarls and e’en our lady Queen will hunt and the feasts that then may take place in the royal hall hard by our town. He smiles his admiration for the great beasts our King himself hath provided to his own table, deer, boar and others. The lady Queen herself is known for her skill with a bow, ahorse and running, which makes likewise the King to smile and that with pride at his lady’s prowess. Dear Osmund ventured to wonder if the King shall take to the new fashion of using falcons and hawks to hunt for smaller game. I inquired if he should also wish to partake of falconry, but said he it is a sport only for the noble and wealthy. Then he leaned to me and in the softest voice did confide that he should fear that the birds would take too much game and thus deprive my firepit of a roasting wild goose and his scrip of jingling silver.
I know that Osmund is not wed, and ne’er has been, and think I that he loves his liberty too warmly to share it. His cottage lies outside the stockade walls and one may see him not for many days at a time. Upon a time I have seen him walking with his bow upon his back and a smile on his face, whistling a merry tune as he takes that fondest step across the verge of the path and onto paths the rest of us may only guess at.
Still when this good man and I may sit upon an evening and drink together Osmund is warm and cheering company, with his quiet wisdom and his patient heart. We are of an age and if I thought he would take my offer I should try to take him to my bed, for he is the sort of comely that is born of long hours in the woods and fields and long years observing all that passes round. But I comfort me with the small voice that does tell me that ‘twould change our companionable moments and I should lose the comfortable friend and never gain a lover. I shall content me with the soft fur of a wolf he did bring as a gift to me on a day long gone past and which lies across my bed, and across my body when the night is cold.
So shall I let mine eye drift to the kitchen door anon and wait to see the tall and bashful fellow stoop within, his sack full to bursting with his hunt’s bounty. Mayhap this time will be grouse, or mayhap smaller birds aplenty. A wild goat will be a boon indeed, but happy we to have the smaller creatures that Osmund’s arrow may find.. Though in sooth game is not so ready to hand as are the creatures of the sea, when Osmund doth take his bow and smile to the woods, what game there is shall straight way find its path into my cooking pot.
* Fyrd: the levy of common men, farmers, fishermen, hunters, laborers, shopkeepers, and so forth, called up by the lord or reeve to serve in the King’s army. See the article on Regia Anglorum at http://www.regia.org/fyrd1.htm .
** Leofwen Taverner of Eoforwic is Nan Hawthorne, author of An Involuntary king: A Tale of Anglo Saxon England. This story was originally published on the Blue Lady Tavern blog, soon to be rereleased as "Alehouse Tales". See http:..www.nanhawthorne.com for more information.
Monday, March 8, 2010
The place is Wintanceaster, the foremost town in the Kingdom of Wessex. The year is 985 A.D. The king of Wessex is Ethelred, who would come to be called "Unræd", or "Ill-advised“. Wintanceastre is where you will find Ethel red’s palace, the great Minster, the convent known as Nunnaminster, and the encircling wall that Alfred the Great built.
If you walk south from the southern gate you will be in the collection of cottages that cluster about a stone cross and was beginning to be called St. Cross in its honor. One of the cottages facing the cross has had some additions built onto it. The main door is covered by a leather hide to keep out drafts. By the broom you can see hanging outside the doorway you know that this is an alehouse and that the ale is freshly brewed.
If you push aside the hide and go into the alehouse you will have to pause a moment to let your eyes adjust to the smoky dimness of the interior of the cottage. There are no windows, just a small smoke hole in the middle of the turf roof for the smoke from the small fire pit in the middle of the floor to vent. There are tallow candles on what you recognize as two long tables with long benches along their sides. There is another door on the opposite wall, but on this one's hide covering is pulled aside so the alehouse keeper and her servants can come and go with bowls and pitchers. You smell a combination of traveler's bodies, the rich sweet smell of malted barley and yeast. You also smell an enticing aroma of cooked meat and cabbage and onion potage. Your stomach rumbles, and you look for a place to park your posterior.
"Was thu hal!" comes a cheerful female voice. "Come in, wayfarer, and sit. I will have Milthryth bring you a bowl of my fine potage and a brimming beaker of my fine Saxon ale." It is Leofwen, the alehouse keeper, a stout bright eyed woman in her forties. Her smile is broad and genuine. Her hair is covered with a linen head scarf, her body in a plain gown of green wool made in the rectangular construction that uses every scrap of the weaver's hard work. Over it she wears a heavier linen apron, stained with broth and ale but not filthy. You notice her hands are clean. Her cheeks are pink, her eyes blue, and the warmth she radiates makes you feel at home.
Leofwen gestures to a mousy little woman who is peeking in at that aft door. The servant, who must be Milthryth, turns quickly. You learn later that the cook fire is in back of the alehouse, and that the addition built on after Leofwen took over the establishment t is her brew house. The servant comes back in with a beaker of ale and an empty bowl. She hands the bowl to the older woman, who brings it to you, taking the liberty to lift a leg over the bench and sit next to you. In the meantime, Milthryth has gone to the pot hanging from an iron tripod over the central fire. She brings you the bowl, steaming and redolent of meat, grains and herbs, and you take your wooden spoon out of your traveling sack and dig in.
"Will you want to sleep in the alehouse tonight, traveler?" the woman asks, leaning companionably towards you. "You tell her you are uncertain. You are a musician and hope to be sleeping on the floor rushes of the king's hall.
"You may have quite a lot of competition for that spot on the rushes," she tells you as she gives your harp an interested inspection. "With the king to be wed this coming fortnight, every skald and musician in Wessex and beyond is here looking for work." Even our own floor will be like a fishmonger's display in the market. But never fear. If you need it, we will find a place to squeeze you in."
You smile gratefully, placing your silver penny on the table. You think to yourself, "I may or may not find a place in the king of Wessex's court, but I can tell already that I shall enjoy my stay here."
Leofwen seems to have read your thoughts as she takes the penny and slips it into her belt pouch. "We have travelers from all over the island and from across the water. They bring us tales of great events and stories that will keep your ears nailed open. "You take a deep draught of the fragrant ale. She was not boasting. It is some of the best you have ever tasted.
At the end of the other long table an argument breaks out. You look up concerned. Leofwen, rising, bids you not worry. "'Tis nothing. Those two cannot get through an hour without squabbling." She goes to the men and calms them with her deep hushed voice. Someone makes a remark and she laughs.
Aye, come what may, you know your journey to Wintanceastre will not have been a tedious one.
We hope you will visit often to learn more about Leofwen and the visitors to and the events that touch her ale house.
Friday, December 11, 2009
The Amber Treasure
The Amber Treasure is the story of Cerdic, a young Angle living in the Dark Ages kingdom of Deira at the end of the sixth century AD/CE. During his lifetime Cerdic is fated to find himself in the midst of the last Celtic attempt to drive the descendants of the Germanic invaders from what was once their land. Starting in childhood, Cerdic is as much subject to the legends and songs of the great Northumbrian warlords told by the bards as any other boy. It is how he learns what warfare really means to him as a person that makes The Amber Treasure the gripping and satisfying tale it is.
Cerdic is the son of a farmer of higher rank, the nephew of a warrior lord whose heroic death is the impossible standard for a young man's plans. He lives a secure life in the Villa, the old Roman farmhouse now crumbling but nevertheless symbolic of a time he cannot quite understand. He has every reason to believe his placid life will continue as it is, that is, until Celtic raiders come and steal a precious treasure from the Villa, amber jewelry presented by the king as reward to the great hero's wife and now the possession of Cerdic's mother. The Celts, which Denning calls "Welsh" from the old English word for foreigner, take more than the jewelry. They take other precious things, his older brother's life, his sister as a slave, his innocence and youth and his trust in both a Welsh slave and his own half brother, his father's unacknowledged and bitter bastard. As part of a small force he travels to Welsh Elmet to get his sister and the treasure back and to avenge the violation of his home and trust. His heroism in freeing all the captives leads to his involvement in a larger effort to prevent a huge Celtic force from overthrowing Deira. The constant impact of disappointment, disillusionment and compromise not only constitutes Cerdic's own growing maturity and leadership but sets the stage for his future adventures.
The Amber Treasure is the story of three swords, the image that is the spine of this novel. Cerdic's warrior uncle's sword stands for the heroic heritage the young man longs to live up to. The second is a fine newly forged sword that is too rare and dear for anyone to wield until it is won by an unworthy man. The third is the sword of a long dead Roman that Cerdic takes from the hand of the first man he kills in battle, the sword that is the reality of war to both the young man and to us, the readers. The symbolism here is also emblematic of one of the things about this novel I most appreciated. Unlike so many depictions of the Middle Ages of late, Dennning provides us with a credible disillusion with battle and glory that is untouched by false modern sensibilities. Cerdic's falling out of love with his uncle's legacy is the natural outgrowth of real experience, coming from an intelligent and reflective mind. It is a grim recognition of the consequences, not a lecture from a distant post-modern future.
Denning presents us with an interpreted early England that does not much stray from what is known but rather offers a flavor of it enhanced with engrossing descriptions, such as the King's hall, the nature of shield wall battle, the stink and fascination of the city of Eoforwic.
The author has a knack with characterization as well, constructing distinct and consistent main and secondary characters, Cerdic's family and friends, the leaders he watches for how to inspire and also not to inspire men and how to make decisions, the enemies who become clearly human to him, and the two young men who challenge his prejudices. Along with the imagery of the swords, the common binding of the novel is a bard, Lilla, an almost unworldly figure who represents the illusion of glory. You know Cerdic has fully matured when he turns to Lilla at a critical moment and tells him to tell his tale another time, for something more important must come first.
This novel is intended to be part of a continuing story and as such is told by Cerdic from the perspective of many years later in his life. I look forward to what Denning does with this.
All in all, The Ambber Treasure is a strong and engaging tale told with skill and oloquence, satisfying and yet thought-proboking by an able storyteller.
The Ambber Treasure is not yet released, so I cannot say what formats and languages it may ultimatley be avcailable in. The author, Richard Denning, supplied me with a digital galley for this review.
Friday, December 4, 2009
A few days ago, I stumbled across a blog called Anglo-Saxon England, which, in my not very humble opinion, is a potential gold mine for anyone interested in the period. The author of the blog also has a message board site called Englistory. There is a link on the Anglo-Saxon England blog, which you can follow if you wish to join. It, too, is a valuable resource for all sorts of historical stuff, especially about Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, etc.. Come take a look at both places. If you are interested in this period of history, it will be well worth your time.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
You know what it is like to go camping. How would you like to camp from the moment you are born to the moment you die?
1. You spend a lot of time outdoors because indoors there was very little light even at the best of times.
2. You are only warm and dry when the weather outside is warm and dry.
3. If something hurts, it keeps hurting until it heals. The efficacy of herbal medicine that you read of in historical novels is highly optimistic.
4. You break a tooth on the bits of millstone in the bread you eat.
5. You do not change your clothes very often at all.
6. You never go more than several miles from where you were born.
7. You do not hear about important events for weeks, months or even years.
8. If you do travel, you are out in the weather whether walking or on horse, If it rains you get soaked. The roads are narrow and muddy much of the time.
9. If your leave your loved ones or they leave you to live even a matter of leagues away, you hear very little if anything from or about them ever.
10. The food you eat is based on what is in season at the time or what could be preserved or stored. There is little variety.
11. You breathe in smoke from your fire day and night.
12. You probably have to deal with lice and fleas.
13. If you become pregnant you know you have a strong chance of dying in childbirth.
14. Just about everything you have you or someone in your family made by hand.
15. You never have any privacy.
The point of this list is not to disturb anyone's illusions, but simply to acknowledge differences that are easy to forget. It is likewise easy to forget that these conditions still exist in the world.
Feel free to add to this list.
Reprinted from Nan Hawthorne's Booking the Middle Ages.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
I get a lot of news feeds, and one of them is from, surprise, surprise, a site called Medieval News. A day or two ago, they had a piece from a cooking site called CookIt!, which is based in England's east coast(apparently). There are both modern recipes and "historical" ones, and since this is "Early Medieval England", I think some readers might be interested in looking at the recipes from Anglo-Saxon times. I looked at them, and what I can tell you is this: these recipes are not all that different from what a lot of people who cook "organically" often eat: lots of beans and vegetables and what we would call soups and stews today. Very nourishing, using whatever they had available, with a little of whatever flavorings they could put into it, and were available, very "seasonal"(there's a reason why February was called Kale Month in Anglo-Saxon times! Anyway, some of the recipes, which are aimed at what Americans would call "middle school" kids, are not all that hard to make. There's one for baked apples which really looks delicious! And there are some others that are worth trying, too. Also, the "Medieval" section looks interesting, though some of the recipes there look a bit complex, or else they're things people probably wouldn't want to eat very often(and probably didn't eat very often then, either). But it's fun, and the directions are easy to follow.