Friday, December 11, 2009

New Anglo Saxon Novel, The Amber Treasure, by Richard Denning

The Amber Treasure
Richard Denning

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

Introducing anew Anglo-Saxon blog

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.

Anne G

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What Was It Like to Live in the Early Middle Ages?

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

Cook it, Anglo-Saxon style(and more)

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. 



Anne G

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A huge Angl0-Saxon hoard

I hope this is not least, and not last, but, in browsing around my blog feeds earlier today, I got news of a huge hoard of Anglo-Saxon artifacts, discovered in Staffordshire by someone working on a field.  It is believed to possibly be larger than the famous Sutton Hoo material, and, from what I've seen of it, displays some pretty sophisticated workmanship.  Also whoever designed it, or whoever it was designed for, had an "esthetic" eye; all the pictured items are stunningly beautiful and finely made.  It also seems to date from approximately the same period as Sutton Hoo. 


Those interested can take a look at the official site, where  photos of some of the material is displayed, and will give you an idea of what was in it.  There are even more pictures to dazzle your eye and boggle your mind at Flickr.  The photos are, if anything, even better than on the "official" site.  Either way, prepare to be stunned and amazed.

Anne G

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Warriors of the Dragon Gold, by Ray Bryant. Book review

First published 1987. Edition reviewed: Caxton, 2001, ISBN 1-84067-384-2.

The novel is set in England, with excursions to Normandy, Brittany and Denmark, and spans the period from 1013 to 1066, ending on the morning of the Battle of Hastings. Most of the characters are real historical figures, including Aethelraed Unread (Ethelred the 'Unready'*), King Canute, Queen Emma, Sweyn Forkbeard, Earl Godwin of Wessex, Hardicanute, Harold Harefoot, Queen Edith (daughter of Godwin and wife of Edward the Confessor), Harold Godwinsson (later Harold II), Edward the Confessor and Aelfgifu ('Gifta'), daughter of Aethelraed Unraed. In the last two-thirds of the book there is also a major fictional character, Cedric Cedricsson or Cedric Shieldless, friend to Harold Godwinsson and leader of his bodyguard.

Warriors of the Dragon Gold is a novel on a vast canvas, no less than the political history of England over a fifty-year span, from the last days of Ethelred to the eve of the Norman Conquest. It begins with the invasion of England by the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Canute, and ends with the twin invasions of England by Harald Hardrada of Norway and William of Normandy. The novel explores the turbulent politics of this half-century of war, intrigue and murder, and the many threads that led up to William's invasion. In his preface, the author states that he set out to explain a puzzling scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, where an unidentified lady Aelfgifu and 'a certain priest' appear once and are never mentioned again. The author identifies this lady as Aelfgifu (Gifta), daughter of Ethelred Unraed and half-sister of Edward the Confessor, and builds his tale on the premise that she holds the key to William's conquest of England.

The vast scope of the novel and its enormous cast of characters makes for a rather sprawling narrative. The family trees provided at the beginning of the book are most helpful in keeping track of who is who. There is no one central character throughout the novel, and different people dominate as the narrative progresses. The first third of the story centres on Gifta (the back cover blurb implies that she is the central figure throughout, but this is misleading), and follows her flight into exile, the loss of her husband and most of her family, and the comfort she finds with a young priest. Then she disappears for well over 200 pages, and the story shifts to English court politics and centres on Canute, Earl Godwin, Earl Godwin's son Harold and Harold's friend Cedric. This makes for a complex and episodic structure. Readers who like a story structured as a three-act play centred on one key protagonist will probably find this novel hard going. On the other hand, it means there's a range of characters for readers to identify with, which was just as well for me, because for some reason I didn't warm to Gifta and was much more interested in Harold and Cedric.

The large cast means that only some of the characters are fully developed. Earl Godwin is a vital and powerful figure, dominating the middle third of the novel as he dominated the politics of the time. Harold Godwinsson is likeable and engaging. Cedric progresses from a shy teenager to hardened battle commander, and is the character who changes and develops most during the story. Similarly, some of the story threads disappear for long periods, or play only a small part in the overall narrative. Gifta's espionage activities, which are supposed to be crucial to Harold's defeat at Hastings, are never shown in the narrative. There is a mention that Godwin 'had not handled the thread of Tostig's life as carefully as he should' - which is a great line - but the relationship between Tostig and his father and brothers is not explored in any detail. Yet Tostig's decision to get Harald Hardrada to join him in invading England is surely one of the most far-reaching events in English history - if Harold Godwinsson had not had to fight both Hardrada and then William, at opposite ends of the country, within a short space of time, the outcome at Hastings might have been very different. Overall, the book gave me the feeling of a trilogy or possibly even a series shoehorned into a single book by means of ruthless pruning.

There are some splendid set-piece scenes, such as Cedric's duel with Olaf, the murder of Ethelred's son Alfred, Harold Godwinsson's successful invasion of Wales, and the poignant scene between the English warriors on the eve of Hastings. The cultural contrasts between Anglo-Danish society and Norman ways are well drawn, with a vivid description of a Norse earl's hall and a Norse feast. Readers who like to play Hunt the Anachronism should be warned that there is a reference to Godwin's tenants paying rent in pigs and potatoes, and the name Cedric is first recorded in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names. Since the name Cedd was certainly in use in the seventh century (Bede mentions an English priest of that name), it seems to me entirely possible that it might have been compounded with the common name element -ric to make Cedric and the compound happened not to be recorded, but it seems an odd choice of name for a major character.

A sprawling novel in a complex and fascinating period of history.

*The popular modern form of the nickname. Unraed means 'Ill Counsel' or 'No Counsel', a pun on Aethelraed which means 'Noble Counsel'

Friday, August 28, 2009

Reconstructed Anglo Saxon Villages

Actual or virtual, visit some of the reconstructed Anglo Saxon villages to learn more about life in early medieval England.

West Stow Anglo Saxon Village
You can visit the reconstruction of an Anglo Saxon village near Bury St. Edmunds.

England. The chance discovery of fragments of pottery earthed during a trial for sand and gravel extraction led to the excavation of West Stow. Between 1965 and 1972 the site was stripped and excavated. Luckily the area had been covered with a sand dune since the 13th century, giving the archaeologists a unique opportunity to study an entire Anglo-Saxon village. Most of the timber had rotted away, but there was enough evidence to plot the changes in the village between the 5th and 7th centuries.

West Mucking
Explore a virtual Anglo Saxon village.

On the web. The sun is setting on the village of West Mucking. Around you, animal noises mingle with voices. Hens are clucking, pigs are snuffling, and further away you can hear sheep bleating. The villagers are finishing their work for the day; they call to each other as they pass you, coming back from the fields or woodland, carrying their tools. You can smell the smoke from hearths in the houses, and also the piles of rubbish! From one of the houses comes laughter... Use mock archaeological methods to uncover the village.

The Village of Wychamstow
See how the reenactment society, Regias Anglorum, conceived and is building a reconstructed Saxon village.

On the web and in England. Welcome to the virtual village of Wichamstow. The village, which if it keeps up this sort of growth will soon be a small town, is situated by the river Fisclacu. When the village has been deemed to be large enough to be officially called a town, it will have to put together a warship and crew to serve the King in times of war. If things should get worse, there is always a chance that he will also order Wichamstow to build a defensive earth bank and ditch around it with defended gates. The ditch would be about 2 metres deep, with a 2 or 3 metre bank, topped with a timber palisade wall of carefully arranged planks. Inside the palisade is a catwalk for the troops to defend themselves and the populous. If either of these projects has to be executed, it will all have to come from the locality and inhabitants, so it's not a popular step.

Firsby Saxon Village Project
Follow the progress of a private development by Ða Engliscan Gesiþas of a Saxon/Viking village in Lincolnshire.

England. Steve and Judith Jones, members of Ða Engliscan Gesiþas living ten miles north of Lincoln, are building a replica Anglo-Saxon period hall using authentic materials and techniques. Steve and Judith plan to make the house into a partially-defended settlement on a four acre site. This will be run as a study centre for the late Saxon/Viking period and an ancient crafts centre. They will also be making and firing pots of the period, smelting, forging and demonstrating crafts.

Do you know of m ore such projects? Let us know about them! Use the Comments link below.

Monday, August 24, 2009

This isn't a well known story, but you might enjoy this interview

The story I"m referring to, is the Icelandic saga, "Audun and the Bear".  It's not as well known as some others, but it's quite interesting, and  at, the author of a book about it gave an interview.  Incidentally, I've heard of this saga; it was reproduced as a children's story years ago, and I kind of vaguely remember it.  Even more interesting is that the hero, Audun, sort of "gambles" everything he has on buying this polar bear in Greenland and has a lot of adventures getting it to the king of Denmark.  In the course of these adventures, he meets and outwits Harald Hardraada, who, as some of you probably know, attempted to invade England in 1066, ahead of William the You-Know-Who.  He didn't succeed, any more than he apparently succeeded with this Audun, but he survived in the saga, and apparently, so did Audun.  In any case, what the author of the book about this saga has to say, should be of considerable interest to anyone who studies Anglo-Saxon England or the "Viking era"(the aughor mentions Beowulf and several other pieces of Anglo-Saxon literature in the course of his interview.

Anne G

Monday, August 17, 2009

Eleventh Century Saxon Music

Before the Stave

Listen to program.

Francis Fyfield unpicks the hidden codes of a beautiful 11th-century manuscript that confirms that the English were pioneers of musical notation long before the arrival of staves.

With the help of Professor Susan Rankin and the French performer Dominique Vellard, Francis tells the story of the Winchester Troper, a tiny book belonging to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and written in Winchester around the year 1030, and how scholars have used it to clarify the way musical notation developed in the 11th and 12th centuries.

The magical discovery in the Troper was that polyphony, the use of two-part harmony, which many thought did not appear in manuscript form before the 13th century, was actually captured by the cantor scribbling in the Troper at a time when Winchester was at the heart of Anglo Saxon culture. This little book provides us with insights into the soundscape of Edward the Confessor's England.

But it only does so thanks to the scholars like Susan and Dominique who have deciphered what looks like modern shorthand notation.

The programme describes the process of unravelling the musical language and how that fits in to the broader story of the development of musical notation in Europe. Frances tries to get an idea of who this cantor was who managed to preserve a golden era of Anglo Saxon music well before the universal staves and notes were developed to simplify the process.

Reprinted without permission from BBC 4:

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Five Mistaken Beliefs About the Dark Ages

Mistaken Belief the First – That Vikings wore helms with horns on them.

Why should any soul not trying to enter the Gates of Heaven ere his time have anything on his helm that would make it easier to knock off his head? Helms in our time, whether Saxon or Dane, were only adorned by the most foolhardy , and never with horns.

Mistaken Belief the Second – That Celtic warriors painted themselves with woad

Those who believe this base that belief on the word for the Pictish people, whose name means “painted”. Now prithee explain to me how one may travel the road from that fact to the destination that throughout the history of Scotland their warriors painted themselves blue? For that is what you shall have to do, and without any proof you shall have to climb a very steep path.

Mistaken Belief the Third – That Charlemagne was and spoke French

In my time - and the great king lives at this very time - there is no country called France and no language that is French. There is the Kingdom of the Franks, ‘tis true, but that language has not developed. It shall develop in Gascony from a sort of poor Latin, but Charlemagne himself spoke a Germanic language, Frankish. And so did the great warrior, his nephew, Roland.

Mistaken Belief the Fourth - That there was a King Arthur

Verily, I know that I shall be taken to task by many a reader for stating that there was no King Arthur. It is a fondly held myth, especially by those who wish to remain in Power by claiming descent. There is no evidence of such a man in any record, even in the writings of the Venerable Bede. The closest one might come to such a hero is an obscure Celtic chief who may serve to bolster some claims, but otherwise has no relation to the legends.

Mistaken Belief the Fifth – That King Offa of Mercia was a Moslem

King Offa of Mercia minted the first gold coins in Western Europe. One of those coins bears his handsome profile on the obverse and Arabic writing on the reverse, translated in part to a reference to Allah. This, my good friend, is because his Mercian majesty’s mint copied a Byzantine coin in order to lend credibility for those traders who had only known Norse silver coins used in England ere that time.

Leofwen Taverner of Eoforwic

Originally published in the Blue Lady Tavbern blog, soon to be Alehouse Tales. Check at Shield-wall Books for release date.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

More on Brewing Saxon Ale

From the Blue Lady Tavern Archives. I offer this as a companion to the post below.

ethinks I need not say that the heart of any Saxon tavern is the ale* it serves. Though in truth there are breweries, such as the fine Five Cats Brewery here in Lawrencium, many a tavern in towns brew at least some of its ale to save the cost but also too make a reputation for excellent drink as well as food and a clean safe pallet upon which to rest weary bones. The ale we serve here at the Blue Lady Tavern is without equal in all the land, mayhap in all England!

The foremost aim of any good brewer is to know the tastes of her custom. My family has been brewing and running hostels for the traveler for generations, so we know well what pleases the palate of the men of the North Country. Northumbrians like their drink strong and strongly spiced. Here in Crístlicland the taste runs to subtle flavours and an ale that may be as easily enjoyed upon waking as in the late night conviviality. I am proud to say my ale is drunk at the King’s table.

Now ‘tis said that cleanliness is not a virtue of a good brewer, but I say that that is nonsense. How can one control the flavour when one knows not what exact ingredients are within the brew? ‘Tis simply sloth or ill advised slavery to a family tradition, nothing more. How clean your brewing tools are is as high upon the list as the quality of your ingredients. Whether ‘tis your choice to purchase these ingredients from a worthy merchant or to prepare them in your own brewery, keep a sharp eye on the servants that they follow your instructions precisely as you give them, or brook no slack in the ingredients you purchase.

That being laid out, let me advance to describe the basic ingredients of good Saxon ale.

Malted grain ~ Whatever grain it suits you to use, whether barley, as I use, or corn** or other such, you may choose to malt it or to purchase it well prepared. The grain is soaked for several days, then allowed to dry. Be certain the water for soaking is pure and the drying shed is clean and dry. Once the grain has started to sprout, it is ready to dry. Then crush or grind it coarsely so as to allow many surfaces for fermentation of the hearty malt.

Gruit ~ The character of any ale comes forth from what the brewer adds to flavour it. Some use honey. In the North spices such as the costly cinnamon are preferred. Most, and I be one of these, use blossoms for they may be mixed to make a unique ale and they will lend towards the amount of yeast needed for fermentation. Some use blossoms of yarrow or bog myrtle, but any edible blossom that pleases the palate may be employed. I shall not tell you what I use, for ‘tis what makes our ale at the Blue Lady so special. ‘Tis a mystery all must forego the revelation thereof!

Yeast ~ When you have brewed for a long time, or even, in truth, simply many times, you need not add yeast to the mash, the mixture made of the malt and gruit together, to make it ferment for the very air of your brewery will lend it. ‘Tis likely you must needs at the outset obtain some yeast from another, but as you work your new trade you shall see that yeast forms in the very process it engenders, which you will strain away and keep for the next brewing. You shall also find that some grains have more of the yeast God grants for this purpose than others.

‘Tis passing difficult to gauge your measurements, as I may not be privy to the measures you use. In simple, use one or more than one measure of malt to one measure of clean cool water. ‘Tis likely you needs must try one batch and then another ere you may find the proportion that pleases you.

To begin, put a large copper cauldron on a fire, let the water grow hot but not boil, then add your coarse ground malted grain. The water you employ may change the flavour of the ale, for good or ill, and you may wish to let it sit partly covered for a day ere you use it for brewing, to let it rest and become what some call “soft”. If you have a source you have discovered of water that be already soft, count yourself blessed. Let the water with the mash simmer for about two hours, rarely less. Have your strongest servants tip the cauldron o’er a clean wooden barrel to our all of the mixture in, then letting it cool in the barrel. When it is as cool to the touch as a pond on a warm spring day, add your gruit in sufficient quantity to flavour the ale as you will. Keep a fire going in the shed or room where the barrel lies uncovered for the period of time between three ringing of the church bells, sometimes more, particularly if brewing upon the shorter daylight of winter when the bells come more frequrent***. Then cover with a light cloth. There is no cause to stir or otherwise disturb the mash. It will do what God made it do without your mortal aid!

Wait at least one full tour of the sun across the sky and back and no more than three. Then you may strain off the mash, saving it for more brewing and also for making the heartiest of bread. Once you have the mash fully strained, let the sediment that remains in the barrel sink to its very bottom. Then strain with fine cloth, wait one hour and strain again, and yet again. The yeast that you shall gather in this way will serve you for many generations. The yeast I use in my ale at the tavern is older than the very Saxon people in this part of England.

You may now taste the ale to vouchsafe that it is ready for your travelers to enjoy. You must at once begin another brewing, for ale will sour in two days time. As a fine brewer of my long acquaintance once told me, “after two days only the bravest or silliest men of the village would drink the ale, but usually it was only fit for pigs." The stale brew was often fed to the pigs as it was said to improve the flavour of the meat. "****

Gentle reader, I wish you skill and discernment in your creation of this nourishing and beneficial drink. Do not allow those who drink it to drink to excess and go out and fall in the street, for it shall not speak well of you that the aroma of your brew may be smelt upon the breath of stinking drunkards.


* “Correctly any beer made in our period should, in fact, be referred to as Ale. The word Beer used to refer to a brew containing hops, or Beor (honey). Hops were not used in this country until much later. The first record of their use being 1236 A.D.” Early Medieval Brewing, Regia Anglorum,
** Wheat. The American word corn refers to a New World plant.
*** Six or more hours.
**** Quoted in Early Medieval Brewing, Regia Anglorum,

Maybe Old English Ale tasted like this

Flash!  I just stumbled across an article which had a Northern California brewery making ale with 45 million year old yeast.  The taste was apparently unique, not like anything you get in the way of beer or ale today.  So I wonder?  Did ale in Anglo-Saxon times, taste more like this brew, or was it unique in its own way?  Not that they necessarily used 45 million year old yeast; they wouldn't have been able to conceptualize anything that old.  But who knows?

Anne G

Monday, July 20, 2009

Those "sexy" medievals

Elizabeth Chadwick's blog, Living The History  has an absolutely fascinating entry today.  It's all about well, sex, medieval-style.  Which apparently wasn't much different from the modern kind.  Except that there were monks and priests imposing penances for certain kinds.  Like, for example, kissing your husband or wife on a Sunday.  Or "doing it" on the "wrong" day of the week.  Maybe this was a crude attempt at birth control?  Even if the monks in question probably would have been horrified if anyone had pointed that out. 


Still, it doesn't seem to have stopped anybody from having their fun, so to speak, because there seems to have been, as Ms. Chadwick points out, an awfully long list of , um, proscribed activities.  Om the other hand, medieval people seem to have been realistic about certain aspects of this.  You could get an annulment if your husband was impotent.  Ms. Chadwick describes one example where some matrons in England tried to "stimulate" some poor fellow, and he wasn't "stimulated", so they declared him a "fraud".  In other words, marriages were primarily for the  procreation of children, and if one of the other of the couple couldn't "produce", well, that was  Just Too Bad.  Usually, though, women were blamed for this.  It was almost never the man's fault. 


But people could entertain themselves with "innuendo" in various ways.  The Chadwick blog also has a very interesting picture of an object, which apparently is based on an important part of the male anatomy.  I've seen similar "objects", disguised as cup handles(my daughter accidentally wandered into a store selling such items an as I wandered in after her, I saw these things.  I yanked her back out pretty fast, not because I'm especially "prudish" about such things, but because this stuff is pretty much over the head of an 8 year old). 

Finally, medievals, at least in England, in Anglo-Saxon times, were ingenious about inventing ways of entertaining themselves.  Again, Ms. Chadwick gives an example. It's a riddle.  I happen to be familiar with this particular one; it sounds somewhat "pornographic" to the modern eye and ear, but its answer is actually quite innocent.  I'm sure people must have been highly entertained, whiling away their time guessing these riddles.  They had to be, I suppose. because they didn't have TV, movies, the Internet, etc.  Few people could afford books, let alone  read them.  And they invented jokes and riddles that even today, produce smiles!

Anne G

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Me timbers are too stout to shiver!

Since the decision came about to re-edit the first book of the Macsen’s Treasure series, INTO THE PATH OF GODS, I knew a number of historical points needed to be corrected as well as some other logistical issues. One scene that originally took place along a roadside needed to be moved to a more logical location and will now take place on a trading ship. While the updated scene provides the same storyline and character pathways, it will now make more sense and have more impact. As result I needed to check into a little seafaring history of fifth century Britain.

Unfortunately, maritime archaeological finds for that timeframe is scant. However, we do have the remains of two Romano-British ships discovered in the River Thames, one of which was located at Blackfriars beneath 20 feet of water at high tide. It was excavated in 1962-63. This ship is thought to have been built by native British shipwrights in the second century AD, putting it quite earlier than the period of Arthur, but it is also thought to be of the type already in use in Britain since before the Roman invasion. It is probably indicative of the type of ship still in use in the latter half of the fifth century.

Based on this conjecture, I have patterned the vessel in the book after the Blackfriars ship. The following list encompasses the basic facts that the archaeologists recorded.

· Built carvel style
· Hull entirely of oak
· Hull planking had massive floor timbers 12” wide, 8-1/2” thick
· Strakes were 2” thick and caulked with hazel twigs
· Strakes attached to floor timbers with special 29” nails
· Nails were driven through the strakes and floor timbers
· Ends of the nails’ shanks hammered over to embed the tip into the timbers
· No keel; two central planks instead, 2’2” wide, 3” thick
· Beam of about 22’
· Overall length about 55’
· Depth more than 7’ amidships
· Bottom nearly flat, enabling ship to rest evenly at low tide
· Chine angle 30-35°
· Oak planks covered cargo area in central part of ship
· Mast-step was a rectangular socket about a third of ship’s length from the bow
· Bronze Roman coin found in the step as a votive offering
· Assumed only one square sail on one mast
· Must have been a deck, due to depth of ship
· May have been a cabin on deck in the stern
· Cargo had been building stone when ship sank

Some definitions:
Carvel-built: the planks are all flush from keel to gunwale. Planks are smooth-seamed.
Chine: the angle where the side and bottom of a hull join
Gunwale (pronounced GUN-nel): the upper edge of a ship’s side
Stem: a timber forming the front extremity of the ship
Strake: a row of planking on the side or bottom of a ship from stem to stern on the outside of the hull.

The information here comes from George F. Bass’s book A History of Seafaring, published back in 1972. I was afraid his information would be out of date, but I’ve also checked out two more recent books and the Blackfriar’s boat is still considered the definitive archaeological find for the timeframe in question. While the ship in the re-edited scene is not terribly significant, I’m always appreciative of good information. Knowledge is a good thing!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Medieval Lincoln

I've just come across a really nice video of medieval Lincoln, thanks to It's on YouTube, and it is a virtual tour of the city, which was once one of the largest and wealthiest towns in England. As you will see when you view the video, there is plenty to delight the dedicated fan of medieval times.  There are many old buildings, a castle, and a cathedral, and all of these were started or built in the 11th or 12th centuries. There are also several good examples of what are known as "cruck" houses.  Many people would call them "half-timbered", and in the US, imitation ones are called "Tudor", though the style itself is much older. Interestingly, Lincoln Cathedral's  "Romanesque" style(it was built in the late 11th century and added on in subsequent centuries, has been copied in many places. An important academic library in the city where I live(and in which I delved for information for my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece -- as well as some other subjects), was originally built in an imitation of this style, though I have no idea whether or not it was built in imitation of Lincoln Cathedral.

Anne G

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The English Resistance: the underground war against the Normans, by Peter Rex. Book review

Tempus Publishing, 2006, ISBN 0-7524-2827-6

As attested by 1066 And All That, the date of 1066 is the most memorable in English history (and one of the book’s only Two Genuine Dates). But William of Normandy’s conquest of England did not happen overnight after the Battle of Hastings. It took William several years to establish his grip on his new kingdom, years in which various English and Anglo-Danish notables rebelled against him, sometimes with foreign help from Denmark and Scotland, and in which William put down the opposition with ever-increasing brutality. Yet this period of revolt and reprisal is rarely covered in accounts of the Norman Conquest. This study by Peter Rex covers the five years immediately following Hastings, from 1066 to 1071, and provides a valuable account of this neglected historical episode.

The English Resistance begins with a survey of the three battles of 1066. Gate Fulford was fought just south of York on 20 September, when Tostig Godwinsson and Harald Hardrada defeated Earl Edwin of Mercia and Earl Morcar of Northumbria. Stamford Bridge was fought east of York five days later, when Harold Godwinsson defeated and killed Tostig and Haradrada after a forced march from the south of England. Hastings was fought on 14 October on the south coast, when William of Normandy defeated and killed Harold Godwinsson (after Harold and his army had marched all the way back from Stamford Bridge). Casualties in all three battles were heavy, and Hastings in particular saw the death of many of the English leaders and thanes. After Hastings only three English earls survived, Earls Edwin and Morcar (who had not joined in the campaign, presumably having taken heavy losses to both manpower and military reputation after Gate Fulford), and Waltheof Earl of Huntingdon, who was the son of Earl Siward of Northumbria and had good reason to dislike Harold Godwinsson after having been twice passed over for his father’s earldom (first for Harold’s brother Tostig, then for Earl Morcar).

The book then moves on to consider William’s policy for consolidating his new kingdom. At first his administration included the surviving English earls, churchmen and officials of King Harold’s government. Over the period of the study, the authority of the English earls gradually declined and administration of both church and state became progressively more Norman. The author draws an interesting comparison with the actions of the Danish king Cnut, after his successful invasion some 50 years previously, who co-operated with the surviving English nobility to create a combined Anglo-Danish state. William comes out of this comparison unfavourably, though the author states fairly that there is no way of knowing whether William intended to replicate Cnut’s policy and was forestalled by English rebellion, or whether William deliberately deprived the surviving earls of land and authority to provoke a rebellion and so destroy them.

An account of the various rebellions against William’s rule then follows, including the rebellions of Eadric the Wild on the Welsh borders in 1067-1069, raids made from Ireland by the sons of Harold Godwinsson, the revolt of the city of Exeter in 1067, and the rising in Northumbria in conjuction with a Danish army in 1069, which was followed by the brutal reprisals known as the Harrying of the North. The rebels used tactics that would now be called guerilla warfare, hiding in inaccessible areas of hills, marshes and forests, emerging briefly to attack Norman targets where they could do so with little risk, and disappearing back into their hideouts at any retaliation in force. The author suggests that some folktales of woodsmen and ‘The Green Man’ may be derived from these times, and that some of the tales may have contributed to the development of the legend of that most famous of outlaws, Robin Hood. The Harrying of the North was an effective counter to such tactics, depriving the rebels and the civilian population alike of the means of subsistence.

Finally, the book gives a detailed account of the career of Hereward the Outlaw or Hereward the Exile (his more famous name Hereward the Wake does not appear until several centuries later), covering his part in the attack on Peterborough and the siege of Ely in 1071 and then dealing with his likely origins, parentage and earlier career.

The narrative is lively, with a reasonable balance between fact and speculation. The author does not use footnotes or endnotes, but for the most part he says in the text which source(s) he is working from and why. Occasionally the line between evidence and opinion gets blurred, e.g. when the author says “....Orderic Vitalis is well-informed as ever....” - as I am not an expert on this period, it isn’t clear to me whether that is the author’s opinion, or whether there is evidence that Orderic is really better-informed than the other sources. Similarly, when he says that support in Northumbria “would have tended to go to Tostig not Harold” (explaining the lack of Northumbrian contigents at Hastings), I would have liked more explanation of that remark given that the Northumbrian thanes had thrown Tostig out in decisive fashion only two years before and had shown no sign of wanting him back since.

Although the material is arranged roughly chronologically, beginning with 1066 and working forward to the siege of Ely in 1071, the author does not hesitate to skip back and forth between events that happened before and after whatever he is currently describing. Usually this is to illustrate a point by means of reference to an individual’s earlier or later actions, or to follow through a theme. But it does mean the reader has to pay attention. If your concentration slips for a couple of lines you’re quite likely to find yourself three years and five counties away, and will have to go back and re-read to pick up the thread.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the Norman Conquest period may also find the large number of names and places daunting, and should find the maps and genealogies in the appendix helpful

There are lots of little-known facts in the book, which make it a delight for anyone interested in the period. For example, there is an excellent discussion on the process by which lands shifted progressively from English to Norman landholders, illustrated by the records of Hereward’s (probable) family, which I found the clearest explanation I have so far come across. The author also discusses variations in English and Norman custom - for example, he argues that Norman sheriffs had wider powers than English shire-reeves, and that the English and Norman view of oath-taking was quite different. He suggests that these might have contributed to the accusations of treachery and oath-breaking levelled at both sides, if each had a different idea of what the agreements meant. And apparently William introduced the offence of ‘murdrum’, which meant that any hundred in which a Norman was found dead had to either hand over the killer within five days or pay a fine of 40 marks to the king and 6 to the deceased’s relatives. From this, according to the author, arises the distinction between murder and manslaughter in English law.

The author draws a parallel between the situation in England after Hastings and the Nazi Occupation of France in the Second World War, and makes this something of a theme throughout the book. This parallel has occurred to me, and it is certainly a powerful image. I personally would be wary of carrying the analogy too far, and in particular I would question the use of terms such as “collaborator” and “Resistance”. I have my doubts as to whether the sides appeared as clear-cut at the time as they do to us now, looking back with nearly a thousand years of hindsight. Viewing Hastings as a conflict between ‘English’ and ‘Norman’ seems to me to be a modern view, treating it as a war between nation-states like the European wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1066, though, England as a political unit was only about a century old, having been established by Aethelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, in the 930s. The Anglo-Danish kingdom of York did not always sit easily under a southern monarch, the Danish population in England had suffered the St Brice’s Day Massacre in 1002, and the wars prior to Cnut’s succession and after his death would have been within living memory in 1066. Loyalties of region, lordship, landholding and kinship, and obligations of blood-feud and vengeance, were probably at least as important to most of the protagonists as the relatively recent concept of ‘England’. Some of those labelled as “collaborators” may have considered Harold Godwinsson a usurper. Some may have suffered real or imagined insult or injury during the rise of the Godwin family to power and may have seen Harold as their primary enemy. Some may have remembered the faction fighting before and after Cnut’s reign and believed that William had a better chance of preventing a recurrence. Some may have seen William and his Normans as no more ‘foreign’ than Harold, who was Danish on his mother’s side. Some may have seen it as a private squabble between rival claimants to the throne and been happy to keep out of it until the outcome had been decided on the battlefield, after which they accepted the new status quo. Some may have regarded victory in battle as a sign of divine approval and taken that as proof that William’s claim had been just. So I rather think the author’s division of the English players in the drama into “Resistance” and “collaborators” may be something of an oversimplification.

The English Resistance is a fascinating survey of a neglected period in English history, and well worth reading for anyone interested in the Norman Conquest in particular or in conquest and its aftermath in general.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Recently  I reserved a book called The Breads of France, by Bernard Clayton.  It came out  in 1978. I used to make a lot of bread, and the Clayton book was kind of a bible for me.  I really enjoyed breadmaking, and no matter what you did with them, they tended to turn out quite well. There was one "daily" loaf that I made a lot, something called the Honfleur Country Loaf.  The picture shows the baker's wares:  big, round loves, with decorations suggesting sheaves of wheat(I didn't bother with these, just the loaf itself).


More interesting,  Clayton went to Bayeux, and did the Bayeux Tapestry Tour.  There, he discovered a section of the Bayeux Tapestry, where there is a feast going on, and discovered a section of the Tapestry that shows a servant carrying a loaf that Clayton claims is similar to another recipe he gathered -- something he calls Normandy Beaten Bread. For the record, this  breadmaking recipe requires you not only to knead it(for a long time), but also to bash it for a while with a rolling pin or something similar.


To get back to the subject,  the Bayeux Tapestry shows a couple of scenes, one of which definitely has somebody holding bread, and one of which probably  has somebody holding bread.  The "definitely one is here, and the "probable" is here.  The "definite" one looks like one of those holiday "ring" loaves you sometimes see around Christmastime.  The "probable" looks a lot like the Honfleur Country Loaf. 


Clayton also says that the French nowadays think they brought the art of breadmaking to England.  This, of  course, isn't true; names like "Baker" and "Baxter" were, in Old English,originally male and female bakers!  And, to connect this to medieval England, where this piece properly belongs,I would suggest to the Gentle Reader that the kind of bread that was ordinarily baked in England, was much like the Honfleur Country Loaf.  It's too bad the book is out of print, and it's too bad that, as far as I know, there isn't a nice picture of the bread in Internetland. Then I could add a picture so you could see for yourselves.  However,  I do have the recipe, if anyone reading this would like to try it.  It's kind of fun if you want to do some "artisan" breadmaking over a weekend. 


Honfleur Country Loaf(and I'm fairly sure this is something like what people in medieval England ate):



1 tablespoon honey

1 cup warm(not hot) water

1 package dry yeast

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour



All of starter

2 cups warm water

1 tablespoon salt

2 cups whole wheat flour

2-3 cups all-purpose flour


1 or2 baking sheets, greased, sprinkled with cornmeal




In a large bowl, dissolve honey in 1 cup warm water and add yeast.  Stir to dissolve and let rest until creamy.  Add 1/2 cup each of whole wheat and white bread to make the starter batter.  Add balance of flours to make a shaggy mass you can work with your hands.  Knead for 3 minutes.  Toss in liberal amounts of white flour if slack or sticky. Cover bowl and leave at room temperature 4 hours or overnight.


Pour 2 cups warm water over starter.  Stir with large wooden spoon or rubber scraper to break up dough.Add salt.  Place 2 cups each of white and whole wheat flours at the side ofthe mixing bowl.  Add equal parts of each,1/2 cup at a time. Stir with utensil , then work it with hands.  You may need more white flour to keep the dough from getting sticky.  Lift from bowl with hands.



Place  the dough on a floured surface and knead aggressively. Once in a while. lift the dough up and bang it against the floured surface.  This is fun(gets rid of all your tensions), and it speeds up the process. Do this three or four times, then continue to knead.  After a while, the dough will be moist and solid. 



Return the dough to the washed and greased bowl.  Cover tightly, leave at room temperature 3-4 hours or overnight, if necessary, until it doubles in volume.



Push down dough and turn out on a well-floured work surface.  Divide the dough into several pieces and shape into tight balls. Reserve 1 cup of the dough to make wheat stalks, if desired. Place on baking sheet and press tops down to flatten slightly.



The loaves are left under wax paper or other covering to triple in size.  This takes about 2 1/2 hours. 


BAKING(50 minutes)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees, about 20 minutes.  Place a broiler pan on the bottom shelf.  Five minutes before the bread goes in the oven, pour 1 cup hot tap water in the pan for a moist, steamy oven.  Place loaves on the middle shelf.  Midway through the bake period, shift the loaves so that each loaf gets equal heat.  Loaves are done when golden brown.  Bottom crust will sound hard and hollow when tapped with a finger.  Place on metal rack and cool.  Freezes well


Oh, and don't forget to enjoy!

Anne G

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ælfthryth, Royal Evil Stepmother

Queen Ælfthryth (elf-thrith) is one of the rare Anglo Saxon women who have made their way into history for more than just whose daughter, wife or mother she was. The wicked stepmother in all its sinister meaning, her legacy includes, among other dramatics, the martyrdom of King Edward the Martyr.

Ælfthryth was of royal blood on both sides of her family. She was reputed to be so lovely that it is said that the great King Edgar sent Æthelwald, a trusted ally, to go and see for himself and, if the stories were true, to make an offer for her hand on the behalf of the king. Æthelwald, discovering just how beautiful she was, married her himself. he wrote to King Edgar and told him the woman was a hideous beast. Edgar was no fool, and he sent word that he would come to console Ælfthryth for her affliction. Æthelwald begged his new wife to make herself appear as ugly as possible for the king, but she did the opposite. King Edgar fell madly in love with her and murdered Æthelwald during a hunt. That a marriage with so high a noblewoman helped his own standing was all gravy.

King Edgar had been married before and had children with his first two wives. He and Ælfthryth were married in 964 or 965. Although Edward, the son of his first wife, was older, the king declared his first son by Ælfthryth, as his heir. Alas, Edmund died in 970, leaving a little brother, Ethelred, who was born in 968. In 973 Edgar, no doubt to strengthen his claim to being King of England, arranged to be crowned a second time, and he also had Ælfthryth crowned and anointed as queen, the highest status yet held by the wife of the king.

Two years later Edgar died, leaving two sons, Edward by his first and Ælfthryth's son Ethelred. Edward was much nearer his majority and had the support of the archbishops of Canterbury and York Dunstan and Oswald, and the powerful Æthelwine, Ealdorman of East Anglia, who happened to be the brother of Ælfthryth first, late husband. Though Ethelred had his own strong supporters, Edward was crowned as their father's successor.

In 978 Kind Edward visited his stepmother and brother at Corfe Castle. As he rode into sight, he was attacked and murdered by men believed to be in Ælfthryth's servbice. Ethelred, just a few years old, became King of England, with his mother Ælfthryth in power as regent until he came of age in 984. Ælfthryth, her former allies all dead, retired from court life when her son became king, but wielded influence as the caretaker of the children Ethelred had by his first wife, Ælffigu.

In spite of her legendary murder of her stepson Edward, Ælfthryth was known as a deeply religious woman. She spent many years supporting the cause of monastic reform. She died between 999 and 1001 at the Hampshire village of Wherwell.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Old English Riddles - a thousand years of double entendre

“I am a wonderful help to women
The hope of something good to come
I harm only my slayer
I grow very tall, erect in a bed
I am shaggy down below
The lovely girl grabs my body, rubs my red skin
Holds me hard, claims my head.
That girl will feel our meeting!
I bring tears to her eyes!
What am I?”

(Answer at the foot of the post.)

This is Riddle 23 from the Exeter Book. The word ‘riddle’ derives from the same root as the Old English word ‘-raed’, meaning ‘counsel, explain, teach’. A riddle is typically a short poem describing a familiar object or activity in a cryptic way, and the listener (or reader, after they came to be written down) has to work out what is being described. They can be clever, witty, poetic, beautiful, almost mystical. As this one shows, they can also display a bawdy sense of humour. Seven of the Exeter Book Riddles are of the same form as Riddle 23.

English/British humour seems to be uncommonly fond of the risque double meaning. It’s a staple of seaside postcards, Carry On films, Frankie Howerd scripts, not to mention Shakespeare (“Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit, wilt thou not Juliet?”). In English, it seems, any entendre can be double’d. It’s rather nice to see proof that this hasn’t changed in a thousand years.

The Exeter Book is believed to be the “…one large book in English verse about various subjects” which was bequeathed to the Exeter Cathedral Library by Leofric, first Bishop of Exeter, in 1072. It survives in Exeter Cathedral Library to this day. The date of its composition is not known, though it’s usually ascribed to the second half of the tenth century, say around 960 or so. The Exeter Book contains a remarkable variety of Old English verse, religious and secular, including The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The Husband’s Message, The Wife’s Lament, Widsith and, of course, the Riddles.

To me, the Exeter Book Riddles show early English culture in an attractive light. Clearly these were people who liked jokes as well as elegies, who valued mundane tasks as well as heroes, and who enjoyed intelligent word games but weren’t above a vulgar belly laugh. It’s worth remembering that the Exeter Book was a gift from a bishop to his cathedral library, presumably expected to be read mainly by monks and other clerics. Evidently at least one senior churchman of the time was no prim killjoy.

Do you have a favourite riddle?

Answer: an onion. Whatever were you thinking?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Avalon: Gateway to Annwn

What exactly was the Isle of Avalon?

Most scholars agree that it was some sort of spiritual center dating from very ancient times. Its tight association with the historical side of the Arthurian legends draws us to Celtic Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, where clues of Avalon’s existence begin to emerge from the mists of antiquity.

Literature provides the first references. Probably the most popular version was written by the twelfth-century Welshman, Geoffrey of Monmouth. In his History of the Kings of Britain, King Arthur is carried to the Isle of Avalon to rest and heal after his last battle. The magical sword Excalibur was forged there. Geoffrey further describes Avalon in The Life of Merlin as the home of the enchantress Morgaine le Fey, the island named in Welsh as Ynys Avallach, or "Island of Apples." This is apt, as apples symbolize plenty and magic in Celtic tradition.

In the Black Book of Carmarthen, one of the ancient Welsh books on which Geoffrey of Monmouth very likely based much of his History, it is said that Arthur’s tomb was secretly located in Avalon. Pagan Celts did not believe in death, but that the soul lives forever. Therefore, Arthur would not be thought of as dead, but merely sleeping, waiting for the call to his next coming. Presumably, because of its significance to the society of Arthur’s day, Avalon had very likely existed for quite some time and was considered the only place special enough to take the mortally wounded king. Why else would a leader of his great stature be taken there? No other leader before or since is associated with the Isle.It is nearly impossible to define Avalon’s purpose without seeking its physical location as part of the same task. While no location can be absolutely proven, just as Arthur’s very existence has never been conclusive, the legends are very probably rooted in reality. Most indications infer, albeit circumstantially, that Glastonbury in Somerset, England was the location of Avalon. Glastonbury’s name is the Anglicized descendant of the Celtic (primitive Welsh) name Ynys Witrin, or Glass Isle.

In the fifth century, the marshy area around Glastonbury flooded cyclically, cutting off higher ground and creating an island. In calm weather, the water would lie smooth as glass. Glastonbury Tor, a large, oblong-shaped hill rising above the town, is flanked by apple orchards, and has been for time out of mind, giving the name Ynys Avallach credence as well. And in Arthur’s day, the area was occupied by people of the same stock the modern Welsh descend from, their names, traditions, stories, and legends following.

Many theories as to Avalon’s purpose have crossed the scholarly world. Using the assumption that Glastonbury is the likely location, one of the most intriguing ideas arises from the strong sense of ancient paganism tied to the area. In the Book of Taliesin, the poem The Spoils of Annwn tells how Arthur and his knights descend into Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld, to steal a mystic cauldron of inspiration and plenty. Annwn is the realm of Gwyn ap Nudd, king of the Faeries and lord of Annwn, and the Tor is his sacred mountain. Avalon is portrayed as a gathering place for departed spirits preparing to go to Annwn, and Gwyn guards the portals. The cauldron magically provides unending nourishment and rebirth. This is the original grail which Arthur’s knights quested after so desperately, before Christian believers shifted its importance to their own purpose. Supportive evidence shows that Glastonbury Tor is artificially terraced in a pattern reminiscent of pre-Christian ritual paths, similar to others across Europe associated with Goddess worship. Archaeology has determined that the pattern is more ancient and complex than originally thought, a seven-circuited labyrinth rather than a simple spiral. There are also persistent rumors of a secret chamber within the Tor, into which people wander and return to the world mad, a trait identified with faery encounters.

In a more recent line of reasoning, author Marion Zimmer Bradley takes this interpretation a bold step further. Combining it with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History in her book The Mists of Avalon, she beautifully portrays Avalon as Morgaine le Fey’s domain. Morgaine is the last high priestess of the ancient goddess religion before Christianity takes over. She is the Lady of Lake, and Avalon is the most sacred site in Britain, the obvious location for Excalibur to have been forged, the grail to be kept, and Arthur to be taken as he lay dying from his battle wounds. It is the mystical place where one crosses from Cylch y Abred, the middle world we live in , to Annwn, the Otherworld. While Bradley’s interpretation has been presented as fiction, there is logical research behind her theory. Ancient Celtic tradition across Britain and Europe includes the belief that we are connected to the earth by an umbilical, known by the Greek term, omphalos, the "navel of the world." A cosmic axis, sometimes symbolized by an upright stone, connects the upper world of Gwynvyd (heaven) and lower world of Annwn, running through the middle world (Abred). The omphalos is considered a place of spiritual power, a center where this world and the others cross most powerfully. Consistently, Glastonbury Tor is a prime candidate as an omphalos. Its very shape is womb-like, and its persistent tradition of spirituality has always been and still is like a magnet to people of all faiths.

History is purely an interpretation of the evidence we have gathered about life in the past. Many times the "facts" are circumstantial, a combination of archaeology, literature, and human supposition; for each historian you have, each will give a different viewpoint. Into the fifth and sixth centuries, the Celtic oral-based customs prohibited writing down stories, genealogies, scientific knowledge. There is little left to forge our theories from, and we may never truly understand Avalon. Sadly, and literally, nothing was written in stone.

This article first appeared in Faces of the Goddess magazine, Spring 1998
© Kathleen Cunningham Guler
Photo © Lynne Newton

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Some more English months

In an earlier post , Carla noted that according to one Old English calendar, February was "cake month".  Hmmmmm. . . . . This, apparently, was the calendar the Venerable Bede used.  But there may have been several in use.  Elsewhere, by various means, I found another calendar, which may have been more "agricultural" or "popular" .  I will list the months below, but note:  since I have no familiarity whatsoever with Old English, other than a little German I studied years ago, all the names have been translated into modern English, though, at the time, I found myself quite able to figure out what most  of the modern equivalents were.  Here, for your edification, if that's the word, are the months:


January       Wolf Month

February     Kale Month

March           Lent Month

April              Easter Month

May               Mead Month

June              Hay Month

July               Midsummer Month

August         Ern Month(I think)

September Harvest Month

October      Wine Month

November Wind Month

December  Midwinter Month


These "month names" are interesting.  It's easy, for instance, to see how February is "kale month";  kale is a pretty tough plant that grows leafy, dark green leaves through much of the winter, and in Anglo-Saxon times, winters may have been mild enough for kale to grow through times where greens might otherwise have been unavailable.  And we get the liturgical season of "Lent" from the Old English name for March(the days are lengthening). Easter is obvious, too.  It is a little surprising that  "May" comes from "mead", but since mead is made from honey, flowers would be blooming and it would be possible to gather honey.  July is more or less the calendrical midpoint of summer. 

The only one of these months I couldn't figure out was August, "Ern" month!  But September was easy, too, since "herfast" translates easily to "harvest", and, interestingly the autumn season is "Herbst" in German today.   Anglo-Saxon England must have had a fairly mild climate, because October was "Wine Month"(if you could grow wine there, it must have been during the "medieval warm period"!). As for November, well, anybody who lives where I do, knows well about the wretched windstorms that sometimes hit my part of the world(and can do considerable damage in a "modern" context, though people in Anglo-Saxon times wouldn't have had to worry about power lines being blown down).  And December is pretty obvious, too, if you think about it.  December 21 is the shortest day of the year. 


Oh, I forgot January, "Wolf month".  That makes sense, too.  I don't know how much of a problem people then, thought they had with wolves, but wolves still existed in England at the time, and people were afraid of them and disliked them(agricultural people usually do, for obvious reasons).  Wolves, and their tracks, are often most easily seen(and heard), in the winter, because food is scarce, and packs will venture near human habitation in order to try to find some.


Perhaps a slightly different viewpoint here, but apparently calendars weren't entirely standardized , or at least different groups called months by different names.  Interesting perspective, that.

Anne G

Saturday, February 21, 2009

February (Solmonath): the Anglo Saxon calendar

Before they converted to Christianity and adopted the Roman calendar, the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) used a calendar based on the cycles of the sun and the moon.

Summary of the English calendar

The year was a solar year, and the two most important dates were the summer solstice (Midsummer, the longest day of the year) and the winter solstice (Midwinter, the shortest day of the year). The winter solstice was called Guili, or Yule, and is the origin of our word “Yuletide” for Christmas. Each new year began at Yule.

The year was divided into two seasons, governed by the spring and autumn equinoxes (the points when the day and night are of exactly equal length). The season when the days were longer than the nights was called summer, the season when the nights were longer than the days was called winter.

Months were reckoned by a full cycle of the moon. Since Bede tells us that winter began at the full moon of October, the months presumably also began at the full moon. The number of days in a solar year isn’t an exact multiple of the number of days in a lunar cycle, so there are 12-and-a-bit lunar months in a year. As a result, the English months moved around in relation to the solar year. Every so often an extra month was added at Midsummer, making a 13-month year, to keep the months aligned roughly with the seasons.

We know this from a contemporary document, Bede’s On the Reckoning of Time, written in 725 AD. Bede was concerned mainly with teaching his students how to calculate Christian festivals, such as that perennially knotty problem of the early Church, the correct date of Easter. Fortunately for the scholar of early England, however, Bede kindly added a chapter (Chapter 15) explaining how his people had calculated months before they adopted Christianity. It provides the main documentary evidence we have for the pre-Christian English calendar.

February – Solmonath, or Month of Cakes

The second month of the year, corresponding roughly with the Roman (and modern) month of February, was called Solmonath.

‘Monath’ is the Old English word for a month, and the direct ancestor of our modern English word ‘month’. ‘Sol’ is the Old English word for ‘mud’, see the online Dictionary of Old English. So Solmonath can be prosaically translated as ‘Mud Month’, which, as anyone who has ever walked across a ploughed field or tried to dig a vegetable garden at this time of year can tell you, is entirely appropriate to the usual weather.

Some people have suggested that ‘sol’ should be translated as ‘earth’ or ‘soil’ rather than ‘mud’, and so Solmonath might have a less prosaic meaning, perhaps more like ‘Earth Month’ or ‘month when the earth was honoured’.

Others have noted that ‘sol’ with a long ‘o’ is the Old English word for ‘sun’ (see the Old English dictionary. In temperate Europe, February is the time of year when the increase in day length that begins at the winter solstice becomes really noticeable, so it’s possible that ‘sol’ in the month name might refer to this visible returning of the sun.

According to the Old English dictionary, ‘sol’ in Old English could also mean a wooden halter for animals. So I’ll toss in another theory – perhaps ‘sol’ in the month name referred to the collar oxen wore to draw the plough, and Solmonath meant something like ‘Plough Month’? I haven’t seen that suggested elsewhere.

Whether Solmonath was the Mud Month, the Earth Month, the Sun Month or the Plough Month doesn’t really matter. Bede tells us something even more interesting about it:

Solmonath can be called “month of cakes”, which they offered to their gods in that month.

--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

The reference to cakes is reminiscent of an Old English charm for making a field fertile, the Aecerbot or Field Remedy. The charm survives written down in a manuscript dating from the tenth or eleventh century, though it may well be derived from a much older tradition.

Take then each kind of flour and have someone bake a loaf [the size of] a hand's
palm and knead it with milk and with holy water and lay it under the first
furrow. Say then:
Field full of food for mankind,
bright-blooming, you are blessed
in the holy name of the one who shaped heaven
and the earth on which we live;
the God, the one who made the ground, grant us the gift of growing,
that for us each grain might come to use.
--Aecerbot, translated by Karen Louise Jolly

The surviving wording of the charm is Christianised, but it doesn’t take a very great leap of the imagination to suggest that the god who was being asked to make the field fertile could just as easily be a non-Christian deity. Kathleen Herbert has argued that the deity being petitioned was an earth goddess (Herbert 1994).

Whatever the deity, Bede’s description of cakes being offered to ‘their gods’ is certainly consistent with a rite similar to that described in the Aecerbot charm.

There is no (surviving) Old English word ‘sol’ meaning cake, and it has been suggested that Bede was mistaken about either the name of the month or the tradition attached to it. I would be very reluctant to think that we know more about Bede’s culture than he did, so I personally would take his word for it. It is worth noting that he says Solmonath “can be called” the month of cakes, which may indicate that “month of cakes” was an informal name like a nickname, or that the month could have several names. Another suggestion is that the cakes offered to the gods were called something like sun cakes, from the ‘sun’ meaning of ‘sol’. In which case February, Solmonath, might mean something like Sun Cake Month.

Full-text sources available online are linked in the text.
Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.
Herbert, Kathleen. Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994. ISBN 1-898281-04-1.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Anglo-Saxon fun stuff

I inhabit several e-mail lists.  On one of them, I "know" someone whose last name is Elphick.  Now, Elphick is not a very common last name.  And I doubt if anybody would associate it with anything remotely Anglo-Saxon.  But if you go back, say, 1000 years, you will find people whose given names, eventually gave rise to "Elphick".  But back in "them days", their names weren't "Elphick".  They were called "Aelfheah".  You might get a clue as to how "Aelfheah" morphed into Elphick, eventually, if you run across some Victorian writers who wrote this name as "Alphege"(it was the name of a bishop, I think, but I'd have to look this up).  Really, though, the name was "Aelfheah".  What's even more interesting is, "Aelfheah" originally meant "high elf", or maybe "arch-elf".  A bishop named Arch-elf might seem kind of strange to us, but then, such names were common 1000 years or more ago, at least in England. 


Finally, let us not forget that there are a number of last names that derive, ultimately, from Anglo-Saxon sources, and most of them are a lot more familiar than Elphick.  Godwin/Goodwin is one of these; there is a plaque at our central library dedicated to a lady with a hyphenated name(one of the names is Japanese)-Goodwin.  And then there are people called things like Dunning, which was a man's name back 1000 years or more ago.  Some first names(especially for men) have made it into the modern world, too.  How many Alfreds or Edwards  or even Harolds do you know?  Probably you know some. 


In any case, these connections to a seemingly vanished world still exist.  And that's a fun fact, if you think about it.

Anne G

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Saxon Flax

Well, I did it. I just ordered flax seed for my self-initiated educational project. I have a tiny raised garden at 21 Acres, a local community garden program, and I decided to grow flax and then process it and spin it. I plan to put together a booklet with a description of the process and photos... and to publish it through Lulu and put a copy in plastic at the garden. And, of course, the whole point is to grow flax like the Saxons did.

I ordered one bag of ten lbs. of traditional brown flax. Clearly a lot more than I will use in a little 4' buy 8' garden, but that's how it goes. Hopefully this bariety is at least related to what the Saxons grew.

I will keep you all posted on my progress.. and look forward to any recommendations or other comments on my bit of reckless ambition.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Angles, Saxons, and Danes, Oh My!

Lest we forget, and Jutes as well.

When I called this blog "Early Medieval England" I really meant Anglo Saxon England, but I expect I will, as a Dane myself, find excuses to write about them folk too. My problem now is not how to fill this blog, but where to start! I could write about the era nonstop for a couple months I think.

With the able collaboration of Meghan Kawak and Anne Gilbert and guest posts from Carla Nayland and the other Anglo Saxon England freaks we invite, this should be both an interesting and entertaining blog. Depend on it!

Give us a little time, though.. after all, Lundenwick wasn't built in a day. It took at least a week.