30 September, 2009

September recipe: Blackberry clafoutis

Clafoutis is a French pudding of fruit baked in batter. I first encountered it on a walking holiday in the volcanic Auvergne mountains in Central France, where every village restaurant seemed to have a variation of cherry clafoutis on the dessert menu.

Cherries in Britain are something of a luxury, so I never have any spare for cooking. But what we do have is an abundance of juicy blackberries in August and September most years. So I adapted the dish to use blackberries. Here it is. If you’ve been clambering up extinct volcanoes all day, it serves two. Otherwise, four.

Blackberry clafoutis

7 oz (approx 200 g) blackberries
2 oz (approx 50 g) plain flour
2 oz (approx 50 g) sugar
1 egg
0.25 pint (approx 140 ml) milk
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) sherry

Wash the blackberries. If you picked them wild out of a hedge, evict the spiders, beetles and other startled wildlife.

Grease a shallow heatproof dish and put the blackberries in the bottom. They should form a single layer, more or less. If you have to stack them several deep, you need a bigger dish.

Mix the flour, sugar and egg to a smooth paste.

Gradually blend in the milk. Remember to keep scraping the paste off the back of the spoon and mixing it in. You should end up with a smooth batter about the consistency of thin cream.

Stir in the sherry.

Pour over the blackberries.

Bake in a hot oven at around 180 C for 30-40 minutes until the batter is puffed up, set and golden.

Serve with pouring cream.
If there is any left over, it is also good eaten cold the following day.

24 September, 2009

Staffordshire Hoard

Some of the sword hilt fittings, image courtesy of the Staffordshire Hoard website photograph set on Flickr.

A hoard of over 1500 gold and silver artefacts of extremely high quality, many decorated with precious stones, has been discovered in Staffordshire. It has been declared as treasure trove. The date of the hoard is uncertain, but according to the summary report on the official website, the objects analysed so far can be dated on stylistic grounds to the period between the late sixth and early eighth century. A Biblical inscription on a gold strip and two, possibly three, gold crosses may indicate that at least some of the objects may have originally had Christian owners. The date of the inscription is uncertain, with late seventh/early eighth century and eighth/ninth century both suggested. (It should be noted that different objects within a hoard can be of different ages, and that the date of the latest object in the assemblage gives the earliest date at which the hoard could have been buried).

The exact location of the find has not been released. A press report said the site was somewhere near Lichfield. The official website says “in the heartland of the Kingdom of Mercia”, which would be consistent with a location near Lichfield.

Most of the objects are associated with weapons and war gear, e.g. 84 pommel caps and 71 hilt fittings from swords or seaxes (a seax was a long fighting knife or short sword) have been identified so far. Some of the items may be helmet fittings, although it is not yet known how many helmets they represent. There are no dress fittings, brooches or jewellery normally associated with women, and there are no buckles, baldric fittings or strap-ends.

Whatever its origin and whoever buried it, the hoard so far looks like a large collection of very high-status military equipment.

The importance of the hoard can hardly be overstated. It will be fascinating to see what further information emerges from research on the hoard over the next few years.

Much more information, including pictures, on the official website. It was a bit slow to load this morning, and now appears to be down altogether (no doubt due to pressure of traffic following this morning’s announcement!), but I daresay it will come back to life in a few days once the fuss has died down. So far the press reports I’ve read mostly seem to be rephrasing the official press release.
More photos on the Staffordshire Hoard set on Flickr.

Okay, so where might the hoard have come from and who might have buried it? This is essentially speculation, but hey, speculation is fun.

The enormous wealth represented, both by the sheer quantity of precious metal and the very high quality of the craftsmanship, is indicative that the original objects belonged to people of very high status. A reasonably logical inference is that the hoard itself also belonged to a person or group of very high status. (I suppose it could be the results of the greatest ever early medieval jewel heist, but let’s apply Occam’s Razor for the time being.) The amount of precious metal is several times greater than in the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and the craftsmanship appears to be as high, as far as I can tell from the photographs, so we can reasonably infer that the hoard also belonged to someone right at the top of society, i.e. a king.

The hoard was found in Staffordshire, possibly near Lichfield. The area that is now Staffordshire was the heart of the early medieval 'Anglo-Saxon' Kingdom of Mercia. The kings of Mercia had a royal centre at Tamworth, and the Mercian bishopric (later, temporarily, an archbishopric) was based at Lichfield. The most likely people to have owned a vast amount of wealth that ended up buried near the royal centres of the Kingdom of Mercia are, logically, the kings of Mercia.

One of the Christian crosses in the hoard had been folded up as if to squash it into a small space, and it has been suggested that this may indicate that the hoard was buried by pagans. However, I wouldn’t myself put too much weight on that. It seems to me quite possible that the cross could have been squashed when the hoard was buried, especially if it was buried in a hurry in times of trouble, and the folding may represent haste rather than disrespect as such. Unless there's more evidence, I’m not convinced that the folded cross tells us much, if anything, about the religion of the people who buried the hoard, as distinct from the circumstances of the deposition.

The overwhelming predominance of military objects in the hoard suggests that it represents the result of a specific selection process rather than a random collection of valuable objects. It may be that the royal treasury of Mercia was carefully sorted, with military gear kept in one place, jewellery in another, coins in another, precious tableware in another etc, and we just happen to have found the military component. Another possibility is that the hoard represents a sort of “trophy cabinet”, a collection of weapons and armour taken from defeated enemies or tributary kings and displayed prominently in the royal hall or royal church to demonstrate the king’s power and military success.

So far, the date range of the objects covers the late sixth to early eighth century, possibly into the eighth/ninth century if the later date for the inscription is confirmed. Mercia was not short of highly successful and aggressive kings pursuing military expansion at the expense of their neighbours during this period, starting with Penda (c. 633 to 655) and going through to Aethelbald (716-757) and Offa, of Offa’s Dyke fame (757-796). It would not be at all surprising if one or several of these kings (or indeed others whose names have not come down to us) had accumulated a large collection of military trophies taken as booty from defeated enemies, tribute from subordinate rulers and/or gifts from allies. The hoard could have been acquired all of a piece by one of the later kings, or successively added to by several generations. Detailed research might generate sufficient evidence to tell which.

So far, no object in the hoard needs to be dated to later than the early eighth century (although this may change depending on the dating of the inscription). However, that doesn’t mean the hoard was buried then. It may have been buried later, perhaps considerably later, than the latest object within it.

Why might the hoard have been buried? Ritual deposit is one possibility, but a common reason for burying a treasure hoard is to keep it safe from real or perceived enemies in times of trouble. Early medieval Mercia wasn’t short of trouble. Its militarily aggressive kings didn’t always win their wars against other kingdoms, and domestic politics could be violent. For example, Aethelbald, Offa’s predecessor, was assassinated in 757 and Offa had to fight his way to the throne. In the early ninth century Mercia was defeated by the kings of Wessex, and in the mid ninth century the Danes (Vikings if you prefer) arrived and took control. Incidents such as these – and no doubt many others – could provide a context in which a king’s hoard could be buried for safekeeping and the location subsequently lost.

If detailed research confirms the dating as early eighth century, I’d probably look to the political turmoil surrounding Aethelbald’s death and Offa’s accession in 757-758 as a plausible context for the deposition of the hoard. If the dating moves into the ninth century, then the Danish invasion begins to come to the fore as a possibility.

The Staffordshire Hoard looks like one of the most significant finds since Sutton Hoo, and it will be interesting to see what further research can tell us about the hoard and the society from which it came.

Edit: Coverage of the find on BBC Radio 4's PM news programme is available on the BBC iPlayer for the next 7 days. It's the lead item on the news sumamry at the beginning, then fast forward to 5 minutes in for the start of the report and interviews. The interview with historian Michael Wood is especially interesting, He draws the same possible connection with the royal Mercian bishopric at Lichfield, founded by St Chad, as I mention in the post.

Edit: Interesting discussion of the find by Jonathan Jarrett on Cliopatria.

Map links

22 September, 2009

Kreativ Blogger Award

My thanks to Jen Black who kindly nominated me as one of her recipients for the Kreativ Blogger Award. To play, one is supposed to:

  • List 7 of your favourite things

  • List 7 of your favourite activities

  • List 7 things no-one knows about you

  • Pass the award on to 7 others

Favourite things:

Favourite activities:

  • Reading

  • Writing (as someone famously said, writing is the most fun you can have on your own)

  • Cycling on quiet country lanes

  • Hillwalking

  • Dressmaking

  • Embroidery

  • Cookery

Seven things no-one knows about me. I am going to adapt this, as I have with similar lists in the past, and list seven things about someone much more interesting than me. In this case, seven things you probably didn’t know about Bede:

  • He was born on the lands of the monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow, went into the monastery for his education at the age of seven, and lived there all his life;

  • He died on Ascension Day 735, aged about 62. (Age deduced from his autobiographical note at the end of his Ecclesiastical History, written in 731, where he refers to “…my fifty-ninth year….”, implying he was 58 at the time of writing);

  • His scribe was called Wilbur;

  • He liked pepper;

  • His relics were wrapped in “a robe of fine silk” given to Abbott Cuthbert of Wearmouth Jarrow by the Archbishop of Mainz;

  • He applied logic and observation to deduce that the prevailing explanation for the rise and fall of the tides was wrong (It was thought that the tide rose when extra water was added to the oceans from some unknown source, and fell when water drained out of the oceans. Bede reasoned that if this were the case high tide should occur at the same time in all locations. As he knew that high tide actually occurs at different times in the different harbours along the Northumbrian coast, he deduced that tidal rise and fall was something to do with the water in the oceans moving from one place to another, not to alterations in the total volume. He even figured out that tides were associated with the Moon. So much for the “Dark Ages” being an age of ignorance and superstition);

  • He is the only Englishman ever to be recognised as a Doctor of the Church.

Seven recipients of the Kreativ Blogger Award:

Over to you!

20 September, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

This week was Book Blogger Appreciation Week (BBAW) 2009. Read all about it here. I'm late to the party because I hadn't really heard about it until it was already under way, but better late than never. The shortlisted blogs in each category are listed here, and exploring them all should keep you happy for a long time.

If that isn't enough to occupy you, Online College has compiled a list of 100 Best Blogs for Book Reviews.

May I take this opportunity to thank whoever it was who nominated me for BBAW Best History/Historical Fiction Blog. I have no idea who you are, but I am guessing that you must be a reader here, so thank you, whoever you are!

I'd like to mention some of my favourite blogs that weren't shortlisted in the BBAW category. Tanzanite (Daphne) has already posted her shortlist (I told you I was late), and I heartily concur with her choices. Here are some of my favourites that aren't already on her list:

  • Living the History. By Elizabeth Chadwick, author of many medieval historical novels, including The Greatest Knight and The Time of Singing. Includes re-enactment events and discussions of her writing process

  • Greyhounds and Fetterlocks. By Brian Wainwright, author of The Adventures of Alianore Audley and Within the Fetterlock.

  • Historical Novels Info. Historical fiction news, reviews and interviews by Margaret Donsbach.

  • That's All She Read. Nan Hawthorne's candid opinions on historical fiction from all periods.

  • Tanzanite's Shelf and Stuff. Reviews and new releases.

And if Book Blogger Appreciation Week wasn't enough, Amy at Passages to the Past and a group of other historical fiction bloggers organised a Historical Fiction Round Table, with giveaways, interviews, reviews and special guest posts. The round-up is here.

15 September, 2009

The Time of Singing, by Elizabeth Chadwick. Book review

Sphere, 2008, ISBN 978-1-84744-097-6, 506 pages

Set in 1173–1199, The Time of Singing covers the later years of the reign of Henry II, all of the reign of Richard I (Lionheart) and the beginning of King John’s. It centres on Roger Bigod, heir to the earldom of Norfolk, and his wife Ida de Tosney. William Marshal (hero of the author’s earlier books The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion), is an important secondary character. All the main characters are historical figures.*

Roger Bigod, eldest son of the earl of Norfolk, has been at odds with his boorish father, his stepmother and his two younger half-brothers for years, and when his father rebels against Henry II Roger defies his father and joins the king. Victory in battle sees Roger’s father forfeit the earldom, and although Roger has won Henry’s cautious regard, Henry is afraid of the Bigod earls’ power and uses the inheritance dispute between Roger and his half-brothers as a convenient excuse to withhold the earldom from either. Now Roger has a protracted struggle ahead of him to regain his inheritance. When he encounters Ida de Tosney, Henry’s young ward and reluctant mistress, Roger is immediately attracted to her and is happy to accept her as his wife. But Ida has to pay the price of giving up her young son for Henry to rear at court, and Roger has his own insecurities to deal with. As Roger’s work in the King’s service takes him ever more from Ida’s side, the emotional scars they both bear threaten to destroy their marriage.

As with the other Elizabeth Chadwick novels I’ve read, The Time of Singing is especially strong on human relationships. I felt it had a more domestic focus than the Marshal novels. Roger is embroiled in a protracted legal battle for his forfeited earldom and inheritance, there are some murky political shenanigans to negotiate while Richard I is away on crusade, and there are a couple of short battlefield action scenes, but the heart of the novel is in Roger and Ida’s relationship with each other and the people around them. Their marriage forms the centrepiece, but it is only the central one among the many other relationships that form the warp and weft of their lives. Ida’s relationship with her illegitimate son by Henry, who is taken from her to be raised at court when she marries Roger, is perhaps the most poignant. Roger’s family ties, including the difficult relationships with his thoroughly unpleasant father, his stepmother and his two contrasting half-brothers, and his growing friendship with William Marshal, shape his life choices and influence his relationship with Ida and their children. The novel illustrates how medieval society was held together by a complex web of kinship, lordship and friendship ties.

The main characters are well rounded and believable. Roger makes an attractive contrast to the charming and self-assured William Marshal. He is practical, patient, level-headed and reliable, but painfully shy around women and his self-containment can be all too easily mistaken for emotional coldness. Ida is sweet, caring, almost as innocent at the end of the novel as she is at the beginning, and traumatised by having to leave her eldest child behind at court. Left alone at Framlingham with her other children for increasingly long periods while Roger is engaged on legal and administrative duties, Ida’s loneliness and growing resentment are easy to understand. Roger is jealous of her previous affair with the king, and resentful of her pining for her missing son. The growing distance between them, and their struggles to find a compromise that will sustain their marriage (aided by some informal marriage guidance from William Marshal!) is convincingly drawn.

The novel shows an unglamorous side to Henry II, as something of a dirty old man not above exploiting a young girl placed in his care. The secondary character I found most intriguing was Ida’s illegitimate son by Henry, William (later known as Longespee, “Long Sword”). Brought up in the lap of luxury as the king’s son but insecure about his illegitimate status and anxious about his unknown mother’s identity, William develops an obsession with status and show that makes him behave like an arrogant snob as he reaches adolescence. It would be easy to dismiss him as a jerk, but Roger’s cool compassion is able to recognise the genuine worth underneath and build a wary acceptance between them.

Readers who enjoy the minutiae of life (at least among the aristocracy) in years gone by will love the details of domestic life, including Roger’s (fictional) love of extravagant hats and the detail of food, clothing and life in a great house (complete with aggressive geese in the bailey). As the novel covers over twenty years, the narrative often skips forward several years at one jump, and I had to remember to pay attention to the dates given in the chapter headings. A helpful Author’s Note summarises the history underlying the novel and the gaps filled in by fiction.

Warm-hearted exploration of romantic, family and social relationships in twelfth-century England.

*I should note that I’m familiar with Roger Bigod’s castle at Framlingham and the castle Henry II built at Orford to clip the Bigod earls’ wings, so it was particularly appealing for me to read about the men who built them.

06 September, 2009

Vote for Paths of Exile in The People's Book Prize

I am pleased to announce that Paths of Exile is on the September nominations list for The People's Book Prize. This is a national competition for books by new authors, voted on by members of the public, i.e. by you.

Anyone can vote, all you need is an email address. There doesn’t seem to be any geographical restriction. It should only take a few minutes of your time.

You can vote now on The People’s Book Prize website: >>Vote here<<

Thank you for your support!

02 September, 2009

Thatched barns and stave churches: the possibilities of Anglo-Saxon timber architecture

“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs?”
--JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings; The Two Towers (Book III, Chapter 10).

Thus spoke Saruman the wizard, after King Theoden had seen through his lies and told him to take a running jump, neatly articulating some of the more snobbish views of early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’)* culture in general and architecture in particular. Does timber architecture deserve this image?

Small buildings

There are no surviving drawings of early English buildings, and the written descriptions in sources such as Beowulf are stronger on poetic mood than on architectural detail, so the main evidence comes from archaeology. Herein lies an immediate problem; wood is a perishable material and rarely survives well in the ground. Usually all that is left of a timber building for archaeology to find is the ground plan, identified by post-holes and/or foundation trenches. Occasionally waterlogging has preserved some of the timber foundations, or if the building was destroyed by fire some of the charred timbers may have survived (charcoal being less prone to decay than wood), but even these favourable conditions usually preserve only the lower levels of the building.

Experimental archaeology, in which buildings are reconstructed using estimates of the techniques and materials available in the past, is invaluable for testing hypotheses about construction design and methods. It has provided a wealth of information about early English timber construction, especially for comparatively small buildings, such as the sort of houses and outbuildings that might have been occupied by a freeman farming family. Examples can be seen at West Stow near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, and Saxon House, Lincolnshire (pictures available on the links).

Large high-status buildings

There is a tendency to assume that bigger buildings, such as the large high-status halls identified at sites such as Yeavering in Northumberland, were a sort of giant version of the smaller houses reconstructed at sites like West Stow. In the absence of evidence for their superstructure, this is indeed the simplest explanation. Brian Hope-Taylor’s suggested reconstruction of the great hall at Yeavering follows this model (various other reconstructions, together with lots of useful information, available on the same site – it’s well worth clicking round the links). But Occam’s Razor isn’t always correct.

Norwegian stave churches

The stave churches of Norway beautifully illustrate both the problem and the possibilities that can be achieved with timber architecture.

This is the ground plan of Borgund stave church in Norway (north-east of Bergen), built in or shortly after 1180 and not substantially modified since.

Borgund stave church ground plan. From Wikimedia, public domain image.

Doesn’t look very complicated, does it? It’s not very difficult to imagine a thatched barn of some sort on top of this, maybe a sort of central square hall with a few annexe-y bits added on round the sides.

Here is what it really looks like.

Borgund stave church. From Wikimedia under Creative Commons rules

For all that one is supposed to be able to see the universe in a grain of sand, I think most of us would have real difficulty deducing this sophisticated structure from its ground plan. More pictures on the official website.

This is not to argue that high-status Anglo-Saxon halls such as Yeavering resembled stave churches, although if I were going to imagine Heorot** I can think of worse places to start. Absence of evidence is just that. It’s more a reminder that timber architecture can be just as sophisticated and just as spectacular as masonry, and that we shouldn’t be blind to the possibilities.

Map links
West Stow
Borgund, Norway

*Although Tolkien’s Rohirrim clearly have features in common with the early English ('Anglo-Saxons'), not least their language and their names, they should not be taken as a direct counterpart. Tolkien famously disliked allegory.

**Heorot is the great king Hrothgar’s magnificent feasting hall in Beowulf, although I expect that if you found your way here you knew that already.