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