28 February, 2008

Blackthorn blossom

Blackthorn is the first of the hedgerow shrubs to burst into blossom in the spring. A blackthorn bush covered in a mass of delicate star-shaped pure white flowers stands out like a beacon when everything else is still dark and dormant.

It's often confused with hawthorn, which also fills the hedges with brilliant white blossom. But hawthorn grows its leaves first and then blossoms in April or May, when spring is well under way. Hawthorn is part of the main performance, while blackthorn is the overture.

The first white beads appear as January turns into February.

By the middle of February they have opened into tiny white stars.

By the end of February the whole bush is a mass of delicate white blossom.

Pretty soon the blossom will fade, ready to turn into sloes in the autumn, and the blackthorn will go back to being an anonymous green bush for the rest of the year. But I always tip my hat to it as the harbinger of spring.

21 February, 2008

The Female Royal Line: matrilineal succession amongst the Picts?

Most medieval and early medieval societies reckoned royal descent and inheritance through the male line (patrilineal descent). Surviving royal genealogies for the early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) kingdoms and Brittonic kingdoms claim to reckon descent from father to son*. Were the Picts an exception?



Bede recounts the following colourful origin legend for the Picts:

….the nation of the Picts, from Scythia, as is reported, putting to sea, in a few long ships, were driven by the winds beyond the shores of Britain, and arrived on the northern coast of Ireland, where, finding the nation of the Scots, they begged to be allowed to settle among them, but could not succeed in obtaining their request. Ireland is the greatest island next to Britain, and lies to the west of it; but as it is shorter than Britain to the north, so, on the other hand, it runs out far beyond it to the south, opposite to the northern parts of Spain, though a spacious sea lies between them. The Picts, as has been said, arriving in this island by sea, desired to have a place granted them in which they might settle. The Scots answered that the island could not contain them both; but "We can give you good advice," said they, "what to do; we know there is another island, not far from ours, to the eastward, which we often see at a distance, when the days are clear. if you will go thither, you will obtain settlements; or, if they should oppose you, you shall have our assistance." The Picts, accordingly, sailing over into Britain, began to inhabit the northern parts thereof, for the Britons were possessed of the southern. Now the Picts had no wives, and asked them of the Scots; who would not consent to grant them upon any other terms, than that when any difficulty should arise, they should choose a king from the female royal race rather than from the male: which custom, as is well known, has been observed among the Picts to this day.

--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book I Ch.1

The Pictish king-list

The Pictish Chronicle is a fourteenth-century manuscript, though the text may have been copied from an earlier original. It contains a list of Pictish kings and their reign lengths. Here is an extract covering the late sixth to the late seventh century:

Brude the son of Mailcon ruled for 30 years. In the eighth year of his rule he was baptised by Saint Columba.
Gartnart son of Dolmech reigned 11 years
Nechtan grandson of Uerb reigned 20 years
Kenneth son of Lutrin reigned 19 years
Gartnart son of Wid reigned 4 years
Brude son of Wid reigned 5 years
Talorc, their brother reigned 12 years
Talorcan son of Eanfrith reigned 4 years
Gartnait the son of Donald ruled for 6½ years.
Drest his brother reigned 7 years
Brude son of Beli reigned 21 years

--Pictish Chronicle

There are two striking things about the list:
1. Fathers are never succeeded by their sons. This holds true across almost all the rest of the list, as well as the above extract.
2. Kings are identified by the names of their fathers, or occasionally the name of a grandfather or brother.


Bede’s story of the Picts requesting Irish wives may or may not be intended as an accurate description of a real historical event. For the Picts to have neglected to bring any women with them when they set out to colonise new land (like the rabbits in Watership Down) suggests a degree of bad luck or bad planning that is perhaps unlikely, and the story may be a reflection of some long-ago marriage alliance or an attempt to justify an Irish claim in the Pictish kingship. Bede’s use of the phrase “as is reported” suggests that he may not have been entirely convinced of its veracity either.

However, what is interesting about the passage is Bede’s comment that the Picts could select their kings from a female royal line in his own day. Bede was writing in 731 in Northumbria, so the Picts were his contemporaries and neighbours. At the time of writing he says there was a treaty of peace between the Picts and the English (Book V Ch. 23), so the two peoples were on speaking terms. It seems reasonable that Bede could have had accurate information about the customs of a neighbouring people.

The absence of direct father-to-son succession in the Pictish king-list is consistent with succession via the female line. If a man became king through his mother, then the obvious candidates for the succeeding king would be the previous king’s brother (son of his mother), nephew (son of his sisters, i.e. his mother’s daughters), or cousin (son of his aunts, i.e. his mother’s sisters). The one close relation who cannot succeed is the previous king’s son, unless the previous king contracted an incestuous marriage with his mother, sister or aunt. Since the absence of father-to-son succession continues unbroken after the Picts became Christians, when the Church would certainly have had something to say about it, we can reasonably rule out such a Ptolemaic practice.

However, since all the kings are identified as the sons of their fathers, the king-list doesn’t support a purely matrilineal system in which descent is reckoned exclusively through the female line. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘matrilineal’ is:

Of, relating to, or based on (kinship with) the mother or the female line; recognizing kinship with and descent through females.


The king-list shows clearly that the Picts recognised descent from the father, and thus were not purely matrilineal by this definition. This is not necessarily in conflict with Bede, since he says, “….when any difficulty should arise, they should choose a king from the female royal race rather than from the male…”. Unfortunately, Bede doesn’t say what constituted a “difficulty”, or how often one arose. Nevertheless, his statement implies that matrilineal inheritance applied in some circumstances but not necessarily in all. Examples of matrilineal inheritance in unusual circumstances are well known from other societies. For example, listing the Norman kings of England in the form of a Pictish king-list, we get the following:

William son of Robert (William I, “The Conqueror”)
William son of William (William II, “Rufus”)
Henry son of William (Henry I)
Stephen son of Stephen
Henry son of Geoffrey (Henry II)

Here we have one father-to-son succession, one brother-to-brother succession, and two kings who appear apparently out of nowhere. It doesn’t look so very different from the Pictish king-list, does it? Fortunately, we have the full family tree for the dynasty (see figure), so it can be easily seen that Stephen and Henry II both acquired the throne by matrilineal succession.

In the case of the Norman kings, maritime and biological accident meant that the throne happened to pass by matrilineal succession twice in two generations, although patrilineal succession was the norm. Perhaps all the Picts did was to apply the same principle more frequently than other societies.

Cummins (1995) makes a persuasive case for matrilineal succession as an effective method of maintaining a stable confederacy of different tribes. There seems little doubt that the Picts were composed of, or divided into, a number of sub-groups (see earlier post). Each sub-group had its own king, and these sub-kings were subject to a high king or over-king (for example, when St Columba visited the court of Brude son of Maelchon, King of the Picts, in 565, a sub-king of Orkney was a hostage at Brude’s court). Bede’s statement implies that the Picts could (to some extent) choose their king, so Cummins postulates a system whereby the leaders of the sub-kingdoms selected the high king from the adult sons of members of the female royal line. By precluding direct succession from father to son, matrilineal inheritance would reduce the chance of one family or tribe monopolising the high kingship, and thus reduce the risk of other members of the confederation finding themselves subjugated.

On the other hand, although the succession pattern in the Pictish king-list is consistent with matrilineal succession, it is not proof. We do not know who the Pictish kings’ mothers were, and with the exception of those who were brothers, we do not know how the kings were related. It is equally possible that the Pictish kings were not related to each other either through the male or female line. Compare the Pictish list with the other surviving list of high kings from early medieval Britain, Bede’s list of the English kings who “held sway over all the provinces south of the river Humber”:

Aelle, king of the South Saxons
Ceawlin, king of the West Saxons
Aethelbert, king of the Kentish folk [son of Irminric]
Raedwald, king of the East Angles [son of Tytila]
Eadwine, king of the Northumbrians [son of Aelle]
Oswald, king of the Northumbrians [son of Aethelferth]
Oswy, king of the Northumbrians [son of Aethelferth]

--Bede, Book II, Ch. 5

This list of English over-kings contains no example of father-to-son succession, and one example of brother-to-brother succession. In this respect it resembles the Pictish king-list. Fortunately, Bede’s history gives us rather more information about some of the kings on the list than we have about most of the Pictish kings. Oswald and Oswy were brothers. Eadwine was their maternal uncle, but they obtained the throne of Northumbria by military power, not by direct inheritance from him. Aethelbert, Raedwald and Eadwine were not related in the male line according to the information in the surviving genealogies, and there is no reason to think they were related in the female line either, since Bede had ample opportunity to mention any such relationship and does not (although the absence of evidence means this cannot be ruled out). There was probably a political connection between Aethelbert and Raedwald, since Raedwald was baptised in Kent (Bede Book II Ch. 15), and there was certainly a political and military connection between Raedwald and Eadwine (Bede Book II, Ch. 12). The relationships of the other kings are not known.

So, it seems that most of the English over-kings were probably not related to each other, and that the “position” of over-king (whatever it was) did not routinely pass from one incumbent to the next by means of inheritance. It is possible that the Pictish king-list reflects a situation like this, rather than one of matrilineal succession.


The Pictish king-list is consistent with a system of matrilineal succession, and the lack of father-to-son succession argues against a patrilineal system. It is equally consistent with a sequence of unrelated kings, as seems to be the case for the contemporary southern English over-kings mentioned by Bede.

Bede states clearly that the Picts employed a form of matrilineal succession in certain (undefined) circumstances. Since they were his contemporaries and neighbours, he was in a position to know something of their customs. While it is possible that he was mistaken or misinformed, I would be very reluctant to assume that we know more about the Picts than he did.

A form of matrilineal succession among the Picts is consistent with both Bede’s contemporary account and with the succession pattern visible in the Pictish king-list. It need not imply a society organised on dramatically different lines from its neighbours, since other societies also practised matrilineal succession to a limited extent when the male line failed. So, although not proven, it seems to me to be the simplest interpretation of the very limited evidence available.


Cummins WA. The Age of the Picts. Sutton, 1995, ISBN 0-7509-0924-2.

* Note the word ‘claim’. Whether these genealogies are fictitious, legendary or real, or some combination thereof, is open to debate, but the point for the purposes of this post is that they all claim to reckon descent from father to son, indicating that that was the expected method of inheritance. Not one claims to reckon descent through the mother; indeed women are under-represented in the genealogies.

17 February, 2008

February recipe: Bedfordshire Clangers

“As the days begin to lengthen
So the cold begins to strengthen”

--Old saying

Statistically, February is the month with the lowest average minimum temperature, according to the Meteorological Office’s thirty-year data for England. So this no doubt explains why my thoughts at this time of year turn so often to hot, filling dishes featuring suet pastry or dumplings. Last year I posted a recipe for goulash with dumplings.

Here’s another comfort-food recipe for a cold winter day, a steamed savoury suet crust roll that goes by the name of Bedfordshire Clangers. Always ‘Clangers’ plural, even though a single large roll is made. It’s a traditional dish in the south midlands region of England, around the counties of Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, hence the ‘Bedfordshire’ component of the name.

As for ‘Clangers’? Well, one theory is that it comes from a Northamptonshire dialect word ‘clang’, meaning ‘to eat voraciously’ (see the British Regional Cooking website – scroll down). But no-one really knows, so your guess is as good as anyone else’s.

I can, however, be fairly confident that it doesn’t derive from the British children’s television series The Clangers, about a family of knitted aliens who lived under saucepan lids on the Moon. Shame.

Here’s the recipe.

Bedfordshire Clangers

Serves 2

Suet crust pastry

6 oz (approx 150 g) self-raising flour
3 oz (approx 75 g) shredded suet
1 small cooking apple (about 4 oz, approx 100 g, when prepared)
1 oz (approx 25 g) raisins


6 oz (approx 150 g) shin beef or stewing steak
2 oz (approx 50 g) kidney (about 1 whole lamb kidney)
Half an onion (approx 3-4 oz, approx 75-100 g)

Mix the flour and suet in a bowl.
Gradually add cold water, mixing well after each addition, until the mixture forms a soft but not sticky dough. If the dough is sticky, you’ve added too much water, and need to mix in more flour until it stops being sticky.
Or you could buy ready-made suet crust pastry, if available.
Roll the pastry out on a floured work surface to an approximately square shape and about one-eighth of an inch or about 0.25 cm thick. It will probably end up about 12” (about 30 cm) square.
Peel the apple and chop it finely.
Scatter the chopped apple and raisins evenly over half the pastry square.
Fold the other half of the pastry square over so the fruit is sandwiched between two layers of pastry.
Turn the pastry so the short side is facing you, and roll the pastry gently so that the raisins show through. You want a rectangular shape that’s at least twice as long as it is wide (the exact proportions don’t matter).

Chop the shin beef into 0.5 inch (approx 1 cm) dice.
Snip the white central core out of the kidney and chop into small pieces.
Peel and chop the onion.
Mix the beef, kidney and onion in a bowl and season with salt and black pepper.
Spread the meat and onion mixture evenly over the whole of the pastry rectangle, leaving a border of about 0.5 inch (approx 1 cm) clear round all the edges.
Roll the pastry up from one of the short ends like a Swiss roll, so the meat and onion is enclosed within the pastry crust.
Wrap the roll in tinfoil.
Steam for 3 hours or so.
Serve cut in slices, with a green leafy vegetable and gravy. (I find there’s no need for potatoes with the dish, as the suet crust pastry is quite filling enough).

I’ve never tried freezing this, because I suspect that the pastry would fall apart when it was reheated. But I haven’t got a microwave, and it’s quite possible that reheating in a microwave would put less strain on the pastry than re-steaming it. So by all means give it a try.

If you don’t like kidney, substitute the equivalent weight of extra beef.

12 February, 2008

Count Bohemond, by Alfred Duggan. Book review

First published 1964. Edition reviewed: Cassell Military Paperbacks, 2002, ISBN 0-304-36273-5.

Count Bohemond is set in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East (roughly the areas of modern Turkey and Syria), and tells the story of the First Crusade in the late eleventh century. All the main characters are historical.

Bohemond is the eldest son of the Norman lord of Apulia in Italy. The family are military adventurers, proud of their descent from a Norman knight who came south with little more than his weapons and a horse and carved out a lordship for himself. From an early age Bohemond looks eastward to the lands of the Byzantine Empire with a covetous eye. When he is set aside in his father’s will in favour of his younger half-brothers, Bohemond’s desire to go east and seek his fortune increases, and the First Crusade offers him his chance. But despite his military ability, he is a comparatively minor knight among many great lords. Can Bohemond lead the quarrelling factions of the Crusade safely through many miles of hostile territory to the Holy Land – and if the enterprise succeeds, how can he ensure he obtains a share of the spoils?

This novel is an excellent introduction to the First Crusade. I knew only a little about it, and Count Bohemond gives a clear and vivid picture of the events and people involved. Not being an expert on the period, I can’t speak for its historical accuracy, except to say that the incidents I looked up have all turned out to be real, which is always a good sign.

Since all the main characters are Frankish or Norman military aristocrats, you might expect them all to be much the same. Far from it. All the main players are deftly drawn as distinct individuals. Godfrey of Bouillon, fair-minded, competent and honourable. Robert of Normandy, brave but as thick as a brick (those familiar with English history will remember that he was done out of his inheritance by his younger brother Henry I; meet him here, and you can understand why). The nice but weak Stephen of Blois, who would have made a good accountant but sadly the profession hadn’t yet been invented. Bohemond’s hot-headed and quixotic nephew Tancred. And Bohemond himself, as wily as the Crusade’s self-interested ally Emperor Alexius, cleverly negotiating his way through a political maze that is every bit as challenging as the military obstacles.

Count Bohemond is written with a light touch and a keen sense of the absurd. It is strong on military tactics and strategy, from the running battles fought with hostile tribes to the great siege of Antioch. The battle scenes are vivid, short and seen from the commander’s perspective; don’t expect pages of blow-by-blow descriptions spattered with blood and guts. A map would have been very useful for following the crusade’s progress through the mountains and deserts of Anatolia and Syria. Unfortunately there isn’t one in the paperback, so it’s well worth having an atlas to hand.

Bohemond is perhaps a little excessively rational and level-headed. He never seems to lose his temper or do something silly on impulse, and the reader always knows what he is thinking but rarely what he is feeling. There are also hardly any women characters (reasonably enough, given the story is essentially a military one), though Bohemond’s stepmother Sigelgaita has a memorable cameo role in the early chapters. Readers looking for a story about human passions and relationships will be better served elsewhere.

Crisp, compact and very readable retelling of the extraordinary enterprise that was the First Crusade.

Has anyone else read it?

05 February, 2008

Solmonath (February): the early English 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 – for more details, see my earlier post. 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 (as observed, quite by chance, by a commenter on my earlier post this month), 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 hasten to add that as far as I know that theory is my invention and I haven’t seen it 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.

02 February, 2008

Signs of spring

Snowdrops just coming into full flower

Hazel catkins, otherwise known as "lamb's tails", for obvious reasons. In a brisk breeze they twirl merrily, just as a lamb's tail does when it's suckling.

Crocuses coming into bloom.

It's not just the flowers. The local robins have been singing to guard their territories all winter, of course, but over the last couple of days I've heard them joined by blackbirds, great tits, chaffinches, skylarks and a small brown stripey bird that I think was a dunnock, all proclaiming, "This is my bit, come and set up home with me!"

And on the local reservoir a pair of mute swans were courting this morning, and the great crested grebes are sporting their breeding plumage of colourful chestnut-coloured ruffs and feathered crests, for all the world like Elizabethan dandies. (I haven't got a telephoto lens, but you can see pictures of these very handsome birds on the RSPB website).

Spring is in the air.