31 July, 2011

Bring It Close, by Helen Hollick. Book review

Silverwood Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-906236-62-5. 385 pages. Advance review copy provided as PDF by publisher.

Bring It Close is the third in the Jesamiah Acorne pirate series, following Sea Witch (reviewed here a few years ago) and Pirate Code. Set in October-November 1718, mainly on the coasts of North Carolina and Virginia in what is now the US, Bring It Close features the notorious historical pirate Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, as a main character. Other secondary characters such as the governors of North Carolina and Virginia, Blackbeard’s crew and the British naval lieutenant Robert Maynard are also historical figures. The two central characters, pirate captain Jesamiah Acorne and white witch Tiola, are fictional.

Captain Jesamiah Acorne has inherited his family’s tobacco plantation, accepted a government amnesty and, in theory, retired from piracy. Bored and still troubled by questions about his father and his family’s past, he has a one-night stand with an old flame, causing his lover, the midwife and white witch Tiola Oldstagh, to quarrel with him and depart to attend a difficult birth. The plantation turns out to be run down to the point of bankruptcy, his half-brother’s widow is disputing the inheritance, the fearsome pirate Blackbeard still wants revenge on Jesamiah for sinking his ship, and Jesamiah’s dead father is trying to contact him from the world of the dead. Jesamiah finds himself arrested for piracy – ironically, this time he is innocent of the charge – and sentenced to hang. If he is to save his life, clear his name and be reunited with his beloved Tiola, he will have to hunt down and kill Blackbeard. But, unknown to Jesamiah, Blackbeard has sold his soul to the Dark Power, the implacable enemy of Tiola and the power she represents, and cannot be killed …

Bring It Close is a fantasy set against the swashbuckling historical background of piracy in the Caribbean and along the east coast of North America. Central to the novel is a supernatural struggle between the powers of Good (the Immortals of Light, the Old Ones of Wisdom), represented by Tiola, and Evil (the Dark Power, the Malevolence), represented by Blackbeard. Attempts by governments to stamp out piracy, and the antagonism between Jesamiah and Blackbeard, are components of this larger conflict. The magic forces are real within the world of the novel, not beliefs held by the characters. Here Blackbeard is, or was, a human who has sold his soul to the devil and is now possessed by the Dark Power. Tiola is a non-human immortal being, one of the Immortals of Light, who has taken human shape. Having fallen in love with a human, Jesamiah Acorne, she can communicate with him by telepathy and has supernatural powers over earth, air, fire and water (but not salt water). However, Immortals of Light are forbidden to kill, and so Tiola cannot use her power to destroy Blackbeard. Indeed, she has to take great care to keep her identity secret from the Dark Power inhabiting Blackbeard’s body, since the Dark Power could harm her and those she cares for. As Blackbeard is protected from death by the Dark Power, and as Tiola is not permitted to use her opposing power to kill, the supernatural battle is at something of an impasse, and is maintained as a conflict throughout the book.

As well as the magical conflict, there is no shortage of earthly action, from tavern brawls to naval battles, blackmail, political double-dealing and a harrowing childbirth scene. Blackbeard is the major historical figure, and according to the author’s note, “many of Blackbeard’s scenes happened – but without Jesamiah and Tiola of course”. The historical Blackbeard came to fame as an adult and not much is known of his early life, giving the author scope to weave him into the lives of the fictional characters and to develop unexpected connections between them.

As a character, Blackbeard in the novel is pure evil, as one might expect from a pirate who has literally sold his soul to the devil. Jesamiah is still much as I remember him from Sea Witch - his liking for drink and women, not to mention his complete lack of tact and his talent for making enemies, get him into trouble on a regular basis, and he has to rely on his resourcefulness, quick wits and ability to lie through his teeth to get himself out of it again. Fans of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow will probably also take a liking to Jesamiah Acorne. Jesamiah’s painful childhood, stormy family history and troubled relationship with his dead father thread through the narrative, as do the dark memories borne by his father’s ghost. Some of this complicated family history seems to have featured in the second book in the series, Pirate Code, but I had no difficulty following the narrative even though I haven’t read Pirate Code. So although Bring It Close is the third in a series, it can be read as a stand-alone.

A useful Author’s Note explains some of the historical events underlying the novel, and sets out the reasoning behind some of the fictional additions. There is also a glossary of nautical terms and a diagram of a ship to help readers unfamiliar with seafaring terminology.

Swashbuckling fantasy set on the coasts of colonial Virginia and North Carolina, featuring the dashing fictional pirate Jesamiah Acorne and the historical pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.

29 July, 2011

July recipe: Chard and cream cheese lasagne

Chard, also known as spinach beet or perpetual spinach*, is a type of leaf beet, mainly available in summer and autumn in the UK. It’s a green leafy vegetable looking a bit like a more robust version of spinach, but whereas spinach tends to run to seed in hot weather, chard will happily carry on growing until the first frosts.

The young leaves can be eaten raw in a salad like lettuce, larger leaves are cooked like spinach. I generally regard chard as more or less interchangeable with spinach, and use whichever happens to be growing in the garden at the time. So you could also make this recipe with spinach instead of chard, or with a mixture of the two, according to preference and availability. Being July, it’s chard season at the moment, so here it is made with chard.

Chard and cream cheese lasagne

Serves 2

10-12 oz (approx 300-350 g) chard leaves
Half an onion
1 large clove garlic
4 oz (approx 100 g) cream cheese or ricotta cheese
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) grated nutmeg
0.5 oz (approx 10 g) butter
2 teaspoons (2 x 5 ml spoon) plain flour
Approx 0.25 pint (approx 150 ml) milk
2 oz (approx 50 g) cheddar-type cheese, sliced
Approx 4 oz (approx 100 g) dried lasagne sheets**

Wash the chard leaves thoroughly. Cut out the thick central stalk from each leaf. Put about a teaspoon of butter in the bottom of a large saucepan, and put the chard leaves on top. Don’t add any extra water, the drops of water clinging to the leaves after washing will be enough to steam the leaves. Put a lid on the saucepan and cook over a low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring several times during cooking to make sure the leaves at the top get swapped for the ones at the bottom of the pan. The chard will wilt and soften, and will cook down to a fraction of its original volume. When it’s a soft dark green mass, it’s cooked. Remove from the heat and drain, pressing the cooked leaves with a wooden spoon or spatula to squeeze out excess moisture. Leave to cool.

Peel and chop the onion. Chop the chard stalks. Peel and crush the garlic. Fry onion, chard stalks and garlic in about a tablespoon of cooking oil over a low heat for 5-10 minutes until the onion is soft and starting to colour. Remove from heat.

Chop the cooked chard leaves, and stir into the onion mixture. Stir in the cream cheese and nutmeg, and season with salt and pepper.

Now make a white sauce. Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat and stir in the flour.

Blend in the milk a little at a time, stirring thoroughly between each addition to remove any lumps (remember to scrape any lumps off the back of the spoon). Bring to the boil, stirring all the time until the sauce thickens. Remove from the heat.

Grease an ovenproof dish about 7” (about 18 cm) square. Spread one-third of the spinach and cream cheese mixture in the bottom of the dish. Top with a layer of lasagne sheets. Spread another one-third of the spinach and cream cheese mixture on top, and cover with another layer of lasagne sheets. Spread the last one-third of the spinach mixture on top, and pour the white sauce over. Top with the sliced cheddar-type cheese. (You may find you end up with three or four layers of lasagne rather than two, depending on the size and shape of your dish and the size and shape of your lasagne sheets. Adjust as necessary, just make sure that the lasagne and the sauce layers alternate with each other and that you start and end with a layer of sauce).

Cook in a moderate oven, approx 180 C, for approx 35 minutes until the cheese is golden and bubbling.

Serve with salad or a green vegetable.

**You could use fresh pasta, but the weight will be different from dried pasta.

*Sharp-eyed readers of Paths of Exile may have noticed a mention of growing spinach in a vegetable plot. I imagine it as a spinach beet of some kind, as leaf beets have been grown in Europe for centuries. Chard is probably the nearest modern approximation.

27 July, 2011

Paths of Exile – new Trifolium Books edition now available

The new edition of Paths of Exile, published by Trifolium Books UK, is now available from retailers including Amazon, Book Depository and bookshops. It has a new cover, new and revised maps, and a new character list. An e-book version should be available soon – more details here in due course.

Paths of Exile was selected as Editor’s Choice in Historical Novels Review, August 2009:

Paths of Exile is a wonderful story, one that conjures up this long-gone age in extraordinary detail and reveals a profound understanding of its politics, cultures, and religions based on extensive research. It may be true, as Nayland admits, that “solid facts are rare indeed in 7th-century Britain”, but these characters—some real, others pure fiction—are so solid and credible that they will stay with you long after you turn the last page....
--Full review on the Historical Novel Society website (scroll down)

More information, including free sample chapters and the historical note, on my website.

About the novel:
Northumbria, Britain, 605 AD. The Roman Empire in the West has faded into memory, replaced by a colourful mosaic of competing kingdoms. The changing times bring great opportunities - and great dangers.

Eadwine is the youngest son of the king of Deira, guardian of a neglected frontier and the faithful ally of his eldest brother and hero Eadric. His ambition is to be a worthy lord to the frontier district, a good husband to his betrothed, and a reliable second-in-command to his brother. All these hopes are swept away when Deira is invaded by its powerful and predatory neighbour Bernicia. Eadwine reaches the capital just ahead of the invaders, having fought a fierce rearguard action, only to find that Eadric is already dead, shamefully murdered by a unknown assassin.
Eadwine survives the subsequent disastrous defeat, and now finds himself on the run for his life. The fearsome King of Bernicia, Aethelferth, has sworn an oath to the gods to kill Eadwine as thanks for the victory, and no king will dare to defy Aethelferth by offering Eadwine refuge. Eadwine must evade Aethelferth's relentless pursuit, identify and take vengeance on his brother's murderer, and rescue his betrothed. Along the way, he will lose his heart to another woman and discover a shattering secret that challenges all the ideals he holds dear.

23 July, 2011

The Sower of the Seeds of Dreams, by Bill Page. Book review

Matador, 2011. ISBN 978-1848766105. 325 pages. Review copy kindly provided by author.

Set in Late Roman Britain in 368–370 AD, in the area south of Corinium (modern Cirencester), The Sower of the Seeds of Dreams follows on from The Moon on the Hills (reviewed here last year), though it can stand alone. The Barbarian Conspiracy of 367-8 that forms the backdrop to the novel is a historical event, and some historical Roman Emperors are mentioned. All the main characters are fictional.

Promoted to acting Primicerius (captain) of the Corinium Civil Guard after his predecessor Saturninus mysteriously disappeared on the first night of the Barbarian Conspiracy a year before (events recounted in The Moon on the Hills), hard-bitten ex-soldier Canio has had enough of the army and enough of the Civil Guard. When a dying army deserter tells Canio about a hoard of gold bullion hidden in a lake many miles to the south, Canio sees an opportunity to buy himself the luxury retirement of his dreams. But the deserter makes him swear that he will take a figurine of the goddess Hecate to the lake and throw it in – and Canio has his own dark reasons to fear Hecate. He persuades a young priestess, Vilbia, who is searching for Saturninus, to accompany him in the hope that she or the goddess she serves will somehow protect him from Hecate. On their physical and spiritual journey in search of the gold, Canio finds himself developing a brotherly affection for Vilbia. But will Hecate guide them to the gold – and if she does, what will be the price?

The Sower of the Seeds of Dreams follows on from the events in The Moon on the Hills, and features some characters who appeared in the earlier novel. It also resolves some plot threads that were left open at the end of The Moon on the Hills, and readers who (like me) wondered what really happened to Saturninus and Pascentia will find the answers here. However, The Sower of the Seeds of Dreams can stand alone. Readers who have read The Moon on the Hills will recognise the events and people referred to, but the backstory is explained as required and it isn’t necessary to have read The Moon on the Hills first.

The central character is Canio, who was second-in-command to Saturninus in The Moon on the Hills. I remember Canio as a tough ex-soldier with a liking for alcohol and an unscrupulous eye for the main chance. In The Sower of the Seeds of Dreams he is revealed to be a more complex character than he first appears, haunted by the memory of a tragedy in his distant past. Canio has a nice line in cynical humour, and referring to their horse (Antares) as a third person in the party becomes a running joke between him and Vilbia. The development of his character as the narrative unfolds was one of the most interesting features of the novel for me. Part of this is achieved by showing his developing relationship with Vilbia. As Vilbia says as she learns more about him, “…some made me like you better, some not so well.”

Like its predecessor, The Sower of the Seeds of Dreams features some lovely, lyrical landscape descriptions. Most of the novel takes place in high summer, and the rich beauty of the area that is now Gloucestershire and Somerset is brought vividly to life, from the salt-marshes of the coast to the vast reed-beds of the Somerset Levels.

As well as a journey through the geographical landscape, the novel is at least as much a journey through the spiritual landscape of Late Roman Britain. Roman gods, British goddesses, the soldiers’ cult of Mithras and Christianity all play a role, and the ancient myth of Proserpina/Persephone and her abduction by Hades is a key component. The characters believe in omens, portents and supernatural powers; this is a world where a strange dog can be a sign from the gods. Vilbia in particular is seeking a renewal of her faith in the goddess she serves, and even the outwardly materialistic Canio seems to be searching as much for spiritual meaning and human contact as for the hidden gold. All the apparently supernatural events are at least ambiguous, capable of some natural explanation or possibly confined to the characters’ imaginations, so it is up to the reader to decide whether to share the characters’ beliefs.

The journey in search of the gold keeps the tale moving along at a steady pace, punctuated by colourful encounters – some benign, some mysterious, some dangerous – with fellow-travellers and local residents. All the main plot threads are resolved by the end, although there is still scope for interpretation of some of them, such as the significance of the Hecate figurine.

A helpful historical note explains some of the underlying history and provides a glossary of Latin terms used in the text, and a map at the front is invaluable for following the characters’ journey for readers unfamiliar with the geography. There is also an outline of the roles played by each character in The Moon on the Hills, for readers who haven’t read the earlier novel or who would like a refresher.

Beautifully described exploration of the natural and spiritual landscapes of Late Roman Britain.

20 July, 2011

Burgh Castle Roman Fort

Burgh Castle Roman Fort is an exceptionally well preserved Roman shore fort. The west wall has long since collapsed into the adjacent estuary and marsh, as you can see on the satellite image on Google Maps.

Satellite image of Burgh Castle on Google Maps

The east wall and much of the north and south walls are still standing to most of their original height, with massive solid projecting bastions at the north-east and south-east corners and on the walls (two on the east wall, either side of the gate, and one on each of the north and south walls).

East wall of Burgh Castle, showing the gap marking the position of the original east gate and one of the projecting bastions

Looking north along the east wall of Burgh Castle from outside the east gate, showing the projecting bastion with the north-east corner tower in the background

One of the bastions

The walls now stand about 15 feet above modern ground level, massively built with a core of mortar and rubble. They were originally faced with neatly cut square flint blocks interleaved with courses of red tile, although a lot of the facing has now gone.

Wall near east gate

End-on view of wall at the east gate, looking north with the interior of the fort on the left

Close-up of well preserved facing


Burgh Castle is located on the east bank of Breydon Water in south Norfolk.

Topographical map link here

If you scroll west on the topographical map link, you’ll see that there is a vast area of marsh criss-crossed by drainage dykes and dotted with windmills, extending west from the current course of Breydon Water for several kilometres. In Roman times this was a major tidal estuary open to the sea and stretching inland towards the site of modern Norwich. Even now, there are only three crossing places, at Norwich, via the chain ferry at Reedham Ferry, and at Great Yarmouth.

View west across the marshes from the interior of Burgh Castle; in Roman times this would have looked out across a large tidal estuary

Burgh Castle fort was occupied in the third and fourth centuries, and a hoard of high-quality early fifth-century glassware (pictured on the information board by the east gate) suggests occupation into the fifth century.

Information board at Burgh Castle by the east gate, showing the fifth-century glassware hoard and a reconstruction of the fort as it might have looked in 340 AD

Roman name

The Roman name of Burgh Castle fort may have been Gariannonum or something similar. A commander of a cavalry unit based at a site called Gariannonor is mentioned in the Late Roman list of military offices, Notitia Dignitatum, under the command of the Count of the Saxon Shore:

Sub dispositione viri spectabilis comitis litoris Saxonici per
Praepositus equitum Dalmatarum Branodunensium, Branoduno.
Praepositus equitum stablesianorum Gariannonensium, Gariannonor.
Tribunus cohortis primae Baetasiorum, Regulbio
--Notitia Dignitatum, Latin text, available online

Branoduno is Brancaster in north Norfolk, Regulbio is Reculver in Kent, so it would be logical for Gariannonor to be situated somewhere between them, which is consistent with the location of Burgh Castle. It is also consistent with the river name mentioned in Ptolemy’s second-century Geography, “Ost Gariennus Fl.” or “the estuary of the River Gariennus”, listed between the Wash and the Thames estuary.

If Burgh Castle Roman fort was called Gariannonum, no trace of the Roman name remains in the modern name, which is derived from the Old English ‘burh’, meaning a fort or fortified town.

Burgh Castle may be the site of Cnobheresburg, mentioned by Bede. More on this in another post.

Notitia Dignitatum, Latin text, available online
Ptolemy, Geography, translation available online

10 July, 2011

Lady of the English, by Elizabeth Chadwick. Book review

Sphere, 2011. ISBN 978-1-84744-237-6. 521 pages. Edition reviewed: advance review copy supplied by publisher.

Lady of the English is set mainly in England, Normandy and Anjou between 1125 and 1149, spanning the years in which Empress Matilda (daughter of King Henry I of England) was first heir and then contender for the throne of England. All the main characters are historical figures, including Empress Matilda, her father Henry I, her second husband Geoffrey of Anjou, her eldest son Henry FitzEmpress (later King Henry II of England), her stepmother Adeliza of Louvain and her supporter Brian FitzCount.

Empress Matilda is the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I after the death of her brother in a shipwreck. When her husband the Emperor of Germany dies, leaving her a childless widow, Henry I summons Matilda to England and makes his barons swear an oath to her as his heir, as his second marriage to Adeliza of Louvain is childless and looks likely to remain so. But then Henry forces Matilda to marry Geoffrey of Anjou, a boy barely into adolescence, a marriage that is as unpopular with some of Henry’s barons as it is with Matilda herself. When Henry I dies unexpectedly, Matilda’s cousin Stephen and his unscrupulous brother the Bishop of Winchester conspire to seize the throne. Matilda is determined to fight for her rights and those of her young son Henry – but the conflict will exact a terrible price.

As with the other Elizabeth Chadwick novels I’ve read, Lady of the English concentrates on the personal and emotional lives of the historical characters and the relationships and conflicts between them. Not just romantic relationships – indeed, the novel is refreshingly free of invented adulterous love affairs, a big plus point for me – although readers who like a strong romantic storyline will find one in the love story between Adeliza of Louvain and her second husband Will d’Albini. Adeliza is as much a central character in the novel as Matilda, and her longing for a child and then her second marriage and family life with Will d’Albini give the novel a strong domestic focus. Apart from a few vivid vignettes, such as the Battle of Lincoln and Matilda’s dramatic escape from Oxford, most of the action takes place off-stage. So does much of the political manoeuvring; there’s an intriguing hint of foul play around the death of Henry I that I would have liked to know more about, and I would also have liked to see more of Matilda’s dealings with the influential men who joined her cause and left it again. For the most part, war and politics are seen through their effects on the personal lives of the characters and the conflicts they cause.

As well as the conflicts due to the war, and personal conflicts between the characters, there is also an interesting look at conflicts arising from social conventions. Matilda is the most striking example; a ruler is expected to be stern, a woman is supposed to be soft and pliant, a contradiction in terms that causes difficulties for Matilda at every turn. Adeliza’s agonised yearning for a child during her barren marriage to Henry I is in part due to the pressure on a woman to fulfil her social duty of providing her husband with heirs, and part of her joy in the family she raises with her second husband Will d’Albini comes from being able to fulfil the expected role of mother as well as wife. Social expectations can weigh just as heavily on a man, as shown by Brian FitzCount who (as portrayed here) is a warrior by expectation and a scholar by temperament, and pays a heavy emotional price for that conflict (among others).

Brian FitzCount was one of the most memorable characters for me, a honourable man trying to do his best in a marriage and a social role neither of which was of his choosing. Young Geoffrey of Anjou was another memorable character, a childish bully who thinks the way to make himself look big is make someone else look small and whose attitude to his marriage to Matilda is to think that he will “have an Empress at his beck and call”. Henry FitzEmpress was also convincingly drawn, no mean feat as he develops from a baby through a precocious child to the threshold of adulthood during the novel. I also liked Brian FitzCount’s wife Maude of Wallingford, doggedly getting on with the unglamorous but vital business of managing the logistics of a household under siege and reflecting that she feels “like a donkey staggering along under a heavy burden of firewood, while Brian ignored her to look at the fancy glossy horses prancing past with bells tinkling on their harness”.

As well as the main characters, readers of Elizabeth Chadwick’s other novels may enjoy spotting appearances by secondary characters from other novels, such as John FitzGilbert the Marshal (from A Place Beyond Courage) and Hugh Bigod (who appears briefly at the start of The Time of Singing*, review here).

A helpful Author’s Note summarises some of the underlying history and sketches out some of the reasoning behind elements in the narrative, and a family tree at the front of the book may be useful to keep the family relationships straight for readers who are not familiar with the period. The plethora of Matildas in the period is neatly dealt with by using variant forms of the name – Matilda, Maheut, Maude – to differentiate between different individuals. The advance review copy only has placeholders for the maps, which will no doubt be included in the final edition and which should help interested readers follow the action and the characters’ journeys from place to place.

Colourful portrayal of Empress Matilda and Adeliza of Louvain, against the background of the Anarchy in twelfth-century England.

*For The King's Favor in the US

01 July, 2011

Hanging bowls: what were they for?

Replica of the burial chamber from the Mound 1 ship burial, Sutton Hoo visitor centre, view of west wall. The large hanging bowl can be seen beside the spear shafts, left of the centre of the picture.

In an earlier post, I discussed hanging bowls, large thin-walled copper alloy* bowls with suspension points around the rim, often beautifully decorated with mounts made in coloured enamel. They are mostly associated with high-status burials of around the seventh century in what is now England. What function(s) might they have had?

The first thing to say is that hanging bowls may not all have been used for the same purpose in all places and at all times. The period in which they were deposited in graves spans at least a century, and they may also have been in use before and after it was fashionable to use them as grave goods. It is quite possible that their use changed over time or varied by region, and also quite possible that the same hanging bowl in the same household could have been put to more than one use.

Funerary use only
It is possible that (some) hanging bowls were specifically acquired for use in a funerary context and may not have had a use in ‘life’ at all. The cremation burials in Mounds 4, 5, 6 and 18 at Sutton Hoo were associated with fragments of copper-alloy bowls (Carver 1998), and a cremation burial in a hanging bowl was found at the nearby Tranmer House cemetery when the visitor centre was built (Sutton Hoo Society; Pollington 2003). The Tranmer House cemetery is tentatively dated at a little earlier than the mound cemetery at Sutton Hoo (Sutton Hoo Society), and weak stratigraphic evidence suggests that the cremation burials in mounds 5 and 6 may pre-date the ship burials (Carver 1998). If bronze bowls in general and/or hanging bowls in particular were already established as suitable containers for cremation burials, perhaps as a high-status alternative to the classic pottery funeral urn, they may have continued to be regarded as suitable grave goods when inhumation burials came into fashion.

Cooking vessels
This seems unlikely. The thin copper-alloy sheet is not robust enough to make hanging bowls useful cooking pots (Pollington 2003). Moreover, the internal decoration would have been obscured by anything opaque like thick soup or stew, quite apart from the difficulties of cleaning sticky or burned-on residues out of the delicate decorations (and don’t even think about the problems of cleaning stew out of the mounting point for the rotating trout in the large Sutton Hoo hanging bowl).

Storage vessels
Hanging bowls could have been used to store small quantities of valuable perishable items (e.g. imported spices or dried fruits), perhaps to hang them out of the reach of mice. However, this would also have obscured the internal decorations and may be unlikely for this reason.

Purely decorative
Hanging bowls may have held nothing at all and been purely ornamental objects with no purpose other than to look beautiful and display the owner’s wealth/status/exotic foreign connections.

Lamp reflectors
It is unlikely that hanging bowls would have been used as lamps holding sticky substances such as wax, tallow or oil, as this would have obscured and/or damaged the internal decorations. Possibly they could have been used as lamp or candle reflectors, suspended by one of the attachment points and held at an angle behind a lamp or candle flame by means of cords or chains from the other two attachment points to a hook or hooks on the wall. The shiny surface of the metal would have reflected and intensified the light, and the coloured decorations may have reflected attractive patterns that would shift with any movement of the flame or bowl (a sort of cross between stained glass windows and a lava lamp).

Serving vessels for drink
Hanging bowls are typically up to around 30 cm in diameter, and the large bowl from Sutton Hoo was 13 cm deep. So the capacity is a few litres, not sufficient to hold a commodity in bulk. The elaborate decoration is also consistent with some sort of ‘special’ purpose, perhaps for display or use by privileged individuals, rather than as a routine household container. They could perhaps have been used to serve drink to high-status individuals, such as the owner of the hall and/or privileged guests.

Although this is an attractive possibility given the central importance of alcoholic drink to high-status early medieval life (a lord’s hall is a ‘mead-hall’), it may not be the whole story. Translucent liquids such as beer, mead or wine would have obscured the internal decorations to some extent, which may argue against this use of hanging bowls unless seeing the decorations start to appear as the level of liquid dropped was part of the appeal (a signal for a refill, perhaps?).

A further clue may come from the location of the large hanging bowl in the Sutton Hoo ship burial. It was not on the east wall with the tub, cauldrons and suspension chain, which suggests that it was not considered part of the kitchen equipment. Nor was it on the coffin lid with the drinking horns, drinking bottles, Byzantine silver dish, silver spoons and nest of silver bowls, which may indicate that it was not considered as (just) high-class tableware. Instead, the large hanging bowl was on the west wall, with what Martin Carver calls “the symbols of office” – the standard, whetstone sceptre, shield, lyre, and a bundle of spears threaded through the handle of a Coptic bowl (Carver 1988). The photo of the replica burial chamber in the Sutton Hoo visitor centre shows it in its context within the grave.

It’s possible that the hanging bowl was put here for some prosaic reason, such as there just happened to be a suitable peg. However, the burial chamber does not give the impression that it was furnished haphazardly. It must be at least possible that the position of the hanging bowl on the west wall may have something to say about its function.

Water containers
The hanging bowls may have held a clear liquid such as water that would leave the internal decorations visible, and might perhaps intensify their visual appeal by rippling prettily over the designs. The model trout in the large Sutton Hoo hanging bowl would also be consistent with the bowl having been used to hold water, as the fish could be seen as ‘swimming’ in the water as it rotated on its swivel pin in the bottom of the bowl.

In this context, it is worth noting that there is a contemporary documentary reference to copper-alloy hanging bowls in a high-status context in eastern England in the early seventh century. This is a slightly enigmatic reference from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, written in 731, describing an episode in the early seventh century. Bede tells us of King Eadwine (Edwin) of Northumbria, who ruled from 617 to 633 AD:

Such was the king’s concern for the welfare of his people that in a number of places where he had noticed clear springs adjacent to the highway he ordered posts to be erected with brass bowls hanging from them, so that travellers could drink and refresh themselves. And so great was the people’s affection for him, and so great the awe in which he was held, that no one wished or ventured to use these bowls for any other purpose.
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book II Ch. 16

Now, these bowls mentioned by Bede need not necessarily be the same type of object as the copper-alloy hanging bowls that were buried in graves at the same period. Nevertheless, it is striking that they correspond in date (Bede was writing in the early eighth century, in this case about events in the seventh, exactly the date range proposed for the hanging bowls in graves), location (eastern ‘Anglo-Saxon’ England), status (associated with royalty in Bede’s account, found in wealthy graves), material (brass or bronze*) and form (bowls hanging from something).

The limited capacity of the hanging bowls makes them rather impractical as containers for the routine drinking water of a household, and may indicate that if they held water it was ‘special’ water of some kind, either from a special source or used for special purposes. I can think of several possibilities, and no doubt there are others:

  • Holy water. Perhaps the most obvious, given the importance of holy water in Christian rituals. It has been argued that the craft techniques and decoration on hanging bowls suggests that they were Christian objects from western Britain (Dark 2002, p.132-133). It may be significant that the period of deposition of hanging bowls, mainly (perhaps entirely; Geake 1999) during the seventh century, coincides with the period during which Christianity became established among the English kingdoms. Kent converted shortly after St Augustine’s arrival in 597, and the South Saxons converted around 680 under Bishop Wilfrid. The English kings and nobles were probably well aware of Christianity for some time before ‘officially’ deciding to convert, and hanging bowls may have been valued for their Christian connotations. This does not necessarily imply that the graves containing hanging bowls were ‘Christian’; it is perfectly possible to borrow the trappings and/or rituals of another culture and/or religion without necessarily subscribing (entirely) to its beliefs. Raedwald of the East Angles, a likely candidate for the occupant of the Mound 1 ship burial maintained a temple with altars to the Christian god and to his own gods. Perhaps he had a hanging bowl of holy water in the same temple for the same reasons. Even without an explicit dual religion policy, it’s still perfectly possible to attach a superstitious value to the artefacts of another religion, regarding them as ‘powerful’ or ‘magical’ or ‘lucky’ in a nebulous way.

  • Water from a spring considered sacred is a potential non-Christian context for holy water. Sacred springs have a long history in Britain (more about sacred springs in a later post). Even if the English kings did not necessarily believe in the associated deities, they may still have considered water from sacred springs as ‘magical’ or ‘lucky’ or ‘powerful’ (in a similar way to that suggested for Christian holy water above). Something like this may lie behind Bede’s description of the hanging bowls placed at springs by King Edwin/Eadwine, although it may have been no more than a kindly attempt to make life a little easier for travellers (having “wandered for many years” himself, Eadwine probably knew more than most about the exigencies of travel).

  • Medicinal or healing water. Holy water or spring water is mentioned as an ingredient in medicines in Old English leechbooks. Perhaps the hanging bowls contained water to be used for this purpose, keeping it separate from the routine household supply.

  • Water used for some ceremonial purpose, such as washing the hands or some implement before performing a religious rite, or a formal guest ceremony in which a stranger becomes a guest of the household after being invited to wash with water from the hanging bowl.

  • Divination. There are several possible ways in which water in a decorated bowl might be used for some sort of divination ceremony. Objects or coloured liquids could be dropped into or floated on the water in the bowl, and their positions and movement regarded as indicative of future events or answers to questions. The speed, direction and/or degree of rotation of the trout in the bottom of the Sutton Hoo hanging bowl could have been considered significant. Or the distortion of the internal decorations as water in the bowl moved over them, and/or reflections in the water surface, could have been considered to have meaning. It should go without saying that this is speculative.

Hanging bowls were placed in rich graves over a period of at least a century. It seems unlikely that they were used as food containers or for cooking, as this would have obscured internal decorations. The rotating trout in the large Sutton Hoo hanging bowl is consistent with the bowl being used to contain a clear liquid such as water. A contemporary documentary reference mentions copper-alloy hanging bowls (not necessarily the same type of object) in association with spring water. The position of the large hanging bowl in the Mound 1 ship burial at Sutton Hoo is consistent with (but does not prove) some sort of military, official or ceremonial function. This is also consistent with the limited capacity of the bowls, if they held a modest quantity of ‘special’ water intended for a specific purpose. What this purpose might be, or what made the water special, is open to speculation. Holy water, in a Christian or non-Christian context, is an obvious possibility, perhaps used for healing, divination or ceremonial purposes.

As ever, other interpretations are possible. Hanging bowls may have had a variety of functions in different places, at different times and in different households.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Carver M. Sutton Hoo: Burial ground of kings? British Museum Press, 1998, ISBN 0-7141-0591-0.
Dark K. Britain and the end of the Roman empire. Tempus 2002, ISBN 0-7524-2532-3.
Geake H. When were hanging bowls deposited in Anglo-Saxon graves? Medieval Archaeology 1999;43:1-18, available online
Pollington S. The mead-hall. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003. ISBN 1-898281-30-0.
Sutton Hoo Society

*In theory, bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. In practice, both terms are somewhat imprecise and can refer to a range of copper alloys with various amounts of other metals. Copper-alloy is a useful catch-all term.