28 April, 2006

Pause in posts

The next blog post will be on or around Monday 15 May.
See you then.

26 April, 2006

Horseshoes in Roman and post-Roman use

A couple of weeks ago, Channel 4's Time Team archaeology programme was investigating a Roman mansio, which they described as the approximate equivalent of a motel and wayside inn, in the South of England. One of the most interesting items in the programme was an attempt to reconstruct a hippo sandal. These unlikely-looking objects are rare finds from the Roman period and are usually described as Roman horseshoes, used to protect horses' hooves for long journeys on metalled roads or when pulling heavy loads. So the programme got a farrier to try making a pair and fitting them to an obliging horse.

The horse looked very uncomfortable wearing them and walked awkwardly, reminiscent of someone teetering on platform soles. The farrier said he thought the horse would catch its legs on the front spike of the hippo sandal when it tried to turn, that it wouldn’t be able to pull a heavy load, and that he would certainly not ask it to try to trot while wearing them. He suggested that they were not actually used for long journeys on metalled roads or for hauling heavy loads at all, but that they might have been used to hold a poultice in place on the hoof. I'm not sure I'm convinced by that, because the horse would surely still be at risk of stabbing or catching itself with the spikes, possibly even more so if it was already lame. I'd have thought binding a poultice in place with cloth or leather might be safer. But I'll take his word for it as a possibility.

Which made me wonder whether Roman and post-Roman horses were shod, and if so, what with, if not with hippo sandals? And if they weren’t shod, how did they manage when travelling long distances on hard-packed Roman roads?

Horses in their natural environment obviously manage fine without horseshoes. Wikipedia lists reasons why domestic animals may need them, but notes that with appropriate care, domestic horses can grow hooves as strong as wild horses and no longer need shoes. Proponents of natural hoofcare argue that horses were not shod in the ancient world, and one website lists the evidence for the absence of horseshoes in various classical sources. It specifically notes that Xenophon gives detailed instructions on how to care for unshod horses’ hooves but never mentions horseshoes, and provides further discussion on a separate page.

So this suggests that horseshoes were not necessarily in routine use in Roman times, despite the metalled roads.

What about post-Roman times? Direct evidence comes from the horse buried in Mound 17 of the Sutton Hoo site in Suffolk, Britain and dated to the 7th century AD (Carver 1998). The burial showed no trace of iron horseshoes. Numerous other iron artefacts had survived and the horse was found intact, part sand-body* and part skeleton, so it seems certain that iron horseshoes would have survived had they been present. As this was a high-status, possibly royal, burial, the owner would have been able to afford horseshoes had he wished. So their absence suggests to me either that they were a low-status item (in which case they ought to turn up regularly in excavated rubbish pits and the like, and they don't), or that iron horseshoes were not in routine use in the period. (Which may be a useful snippet for writers of Roman- and post-Roman-set fiction).

So when did horseshoes come into regular use? Theories abound. An article in the Danish Veterinary Journal suggests that the horseshoe was invented in China and/or Mongolia and brought westwards into Europe by the Huns, but the abstract doesn't specify a date.

Another suggestion is that horseshoes came into common use during the Crusades. The writer comments that Crusaders used big Flemish horses that had big flat feet from being raised on damp lowlands. I think it quite likely that a breed of horse that had evolved, perhaps with the help of selective breeding, in the damp climates of north-western Europe probably would have developed large feet to spread their weight on soft, muddy ground. It seems plausible to me that such horses would have suffered disproportionately when they were taken to the hard, dry, stony terrain of the Eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Perhaps that prompted shoeing to be widely taken up? Or perhaps it was a matter of fashion?

Do you know? Or would you care to hazard a guess or advance a theory?

Carver M. Sutton Hoo: Burial ground of kings? British Museum Press, London, 1998, ISBN 0-7141-0591-0.

*sand-body. The acid sandy soil of the Sutton Hoo site preserved the external shape of some human and animal bodies as a crusty layer of dark sand that was visible on careful excavation. The picture on the left of the second row in this link gives an idea of their appearance.

25 April, 2006

Ingeld's Daughter - update on Lulu shipping charges

Those of you outside the US who expressed interest in buying the paperback of Ingeld's Daughter but were put off by the cost of international shipping may like to know that Lulu is presently running a promotional offer of free shipping on any order of at least $25 (approximately 21 Euros, £15, or Can$29).

So if you can find something else that takes your fancy, or get together with a friend and put in a combined order, shipping is FREE. Poddy Girl recently recommended a time-travel thriller, a short story collection, a crime novel, and a humorous literary novel. Sarah Johnson mentioned the historical novels of Dee Morrison Meaney, which include a trilogy set in 11th-century England, a retelling of the story of Iseult and Tristan of Lyonesse set in Arthurian Cornwall, and a tale set in early Ireland. Lulu also do calendars, music and DVDs as well as books.

Lulu haven't said how long the free shipping offer will last, but it's already on borrowed time (it was supposed to end in early April), so it's unlikely to be long. If you want to make use of it, catch it while you can.

The Lady Soldier, by Jennifer Lindsay. Book review

Edition reviewed: Robert Hale, ISBN:0-7090-7825-0.

The Lady Soldier is a historical romance set in 1812, first in Spain against the background of the Napoleonic war, then moving to aristocratic society in London. All the major characters are fictional.

I should say right up front that I don't generally read romances, historical or otherwise. I picked this one up because I read about it on one of Kate Allan's blogs, and because Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series and CS Forester's The Gun (the film, I confess, not the book) got me interested in the Peninsular War.

So how did I get on with this unfamiliar reading territory? Pretty well. The hero, Captain Tony Dorrell, is a classic romantic-novel hero with broad shoulders, tight breeches and curling dark hair the heroine can't take her eyes off (think Colin Firth in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice; I did). The heroine, Jem Riseley, aka Jemima Cullen, is an aristocratic lady who has disguised herself as a man, joined the army to escape her abusive stepfather and is making a name for herself in Spain as a military hero. A promotion brings her into the same regiment as Tony Dorrell, the man she was in love with three years ago in England. The two of them get cut off in French-held territory in Spain, have to battle deserters and French agents to get back to safety, and Jem struggles against the odds to keep her secret. Then the scene switches to Regency London, where Jem's struggle is now to be accepted into high society and to build a lasting relationship with Tony. I won't give away any more of the plot, except to say that it's a romance so you already know that all ends in perfect felicity.

I found Jem the more interesting of the two lead roles. She comes over as courageous, determined, independent-minded and inclined to try to sort out her own problems rather than ask for help, even though she doesn't always succeed. I have the impression that she fitted better into army life than she does into Regency high society, and the Author's Note comments that women who are known to have served as soldiers (yes, there are recorded examples) often had great difficulty adjusting to a traditional female role afterward. Tony didn't work so well for me, in part at least because he has the classic alpha-male traits of arrogance, reluctance to listen and absolute conviction that he always knows best (even when he doesn't), and alpha males tend to annoy me.

I have a few quibbles. Reading Sharpe and CS Forester's Rifleman Dodd and Brown on Resolution has hammered into me that a rifle and a musket are different weapons with different capabilities. The rifle was more accurate but the musket was faster to load. It's clear the authors know this, because they mention it in the text. So it jars to see the terms used apparently interchangeably, "it was an Indian Pattern Brown Bess musket.....she balanced the Indian Pattern rifle" and later, "the recoil from the musket would be savage....The rifle kept hitting her bruises." I'm also a little uneasy that no other man in a year of soldiering apparently noticed Jem's shapely behind in her tight breeches, or that a small woman would be able to carry a scaling ladder on her own. And I would have liked a lot more about the French villain's nefarious activities with the deserters in Spain and his spy plot in London. But that's a personal taste; I'm well aware that a romance has to focus on the central relationship and complaining that it doesn't have subplots is like complaining about the body count in a crime novel.

Jennifer Lindsay is a pen name for two collaborating authors, Kate Allan and Michelle Styles, and I wondered if this would be apparent in the book. It isn't; the prose flows seamlessly and I can't see the joins.

A good read for fans of romance who like an adventurous background.

Has anyone else read it?

22 April, 2006

Effective use of detail in world-building

Gill Polack has an interesting post today about the use of specific details to build effective worlds and cultures in fiction. I couldn't figure out how to link to the specific post (anyone know how you do this with a LiveJournal site?) so scroll down to the post "Even in a little thing" dated 22 April. It refers primarily to fantasy and science fiction, but it seems to me that it applies equally well to historical fiction. Good historical fiction also has to build a world that is different from the world we all inhabit day-to-day, and make it recognisable enough for a modern reader to follow a story set there.

Discussing a writer called Glenda Larke (who sounds like someone whose novels I should try - anyone read them?), Gill Polack says:

"Her worlds work because she mimics the sense we sometimes get in our own lives: that things are interlinked and complex. She streamlines her narrative by making use of different aspects of society and making sure we see those aspects from several points of view (never just 'sheep' - sheep in fields, cloth in market, wool on someone's back)and so she indicates to us that these societies are complex and functional. The detail is *so* telling, that we can infer much more from her hints than is said on the page."

This chimes in with the discussions we had here earlier about how much detail is too much, and with the recent discussion about sensory description (also discussed by Bernita). It also ties in with a conversation I had with Rick on Gabriele's blog on the possibility of inferring considerable information about a fictional world from the existence of a single item (in that particular case, a book).

Detail and description for its own sake has a tendency to drag, whereas detail and description that has the double function of saying something significant about the world, advancing the plot or developing a character can be hugely effective. As ever, one should bear in mind the caveat that it depends on the personal taste of the reader. Perhaps even more than usual in this case, because the telling detail may only be telling to a reader who is sufficiently engaged with the story to be using their imagination to make the inferences. Someone who is skating along on the top of the plot may never notice at all.

Have you any favourite examples of a telling detail that makes a world real?

20 April, 2006

Ingeld's Daughter, paperback

Those of you who expressed interest in having Ingeld's Daughter available in book form may like to know that it's now available as a paperback on Lulu.com. Lulu's printing is done in the US, so if you're outside the US the international shipping charges may be uneconomic. A printer in the UK/Europe is planned but there's no definite date, so in the meantime it may be simpler to consider finding a friend/relative/acquaintance in the US who's prepared to order a copy and post it to you. A note on pricing: it's a long book (250,000 words, 572 pages) and the cost price comes out at $15.99 (you can check this for yourself on Lulu's cost calculator if you like). Lulu takes a 20% share of any royalty but waives it if it is less than 20 cents. I'm quite pleased that Lulu exists and offers a mechanism for printing something in book form for anyone who wants it, so I should like them to take their cut on any copy sold. So I set a royalty of $1.50, bringing the price to $17.49.

The book is of course still available as a free download on my website, now complete with sketch map for those of you who asked for one.

19 April, 2006

A Perfect King (biography of Edward III), by Ian Mortimer, and others

Some of you may be interested to know that Ian Mortimer was on Radio 4's Start the Week discussion programme on Monday 17 April, talking about his new biography of Edward III, A Perfect King. If you missed it, or if you're not in the UK, you can get the programme from the BBC's Listen Again page. You can listen to the programme directly or download it as an MP3 file to listen to at your leisure. The full programme lasts 45 minutes and the discussion of A Perfect King is the last 15 minutes.

Ian Mortimer makes the interesting point that the battle of Crecy was the first full-scale battle of the Middle Ages that was won by projectile weapons (longbow archery) rather than by hand-to-hand combat. He also said that Edward III was the first king to make significant use of archery. I'd always thought that although archery came to its fullest flowering in Edward III's reign, it had already been used to great effect by Edward I, who used South Welsh mercenary archers in his wars with Gwynedd and then took them to Scotland for his Scottish campaigns. Does anyone know if this is a myth?

And a couple of comments from Joe Roesch that may have been missed because they were added recently to posts that have rolled off the end of the blog. In the Boudica post he notes that Discovery Channel is running a 5-part series on Warrior Women, including Boudica, on May 3-7 (more info here), and in the Pompeii post he recommends a book on Roman engineering: J.G. Landels, "Engineering in The Ancient World" (1978/1997).

18 April, 2006

Sense of smell in historical fiction

Historical fiction got a rare mention on Miss Snark yesterday. Someone had received a rejection letter for their historical romance that said, "the style throughout was flat and unevocative and often sounded quite contemporary".

Miss Snark suggested that the writer might have described visual appearance at the expense of the other senses, and advised, "Smell is the most overlooked description in novels, and historical novels lend themselves to this quite nicely."

This made me stop and think. Why would historical fiction lend itself especially to descriptions of smell? Do you think it does? Is this something you look for to give a sense of time and place? Is it always a good thing or can it be over-used/mis-used?

Here are a couple of examples I can think of, one that I thought worked well and one that I thought added little if anything.

In The Last English King, by Julian Rathbone, there's a scene in which Edward the Confessor is dying of the complications of diabetes, including a necrotic leg ulcer. The bishop (I think it's a bishop) stumbles out of the chamber, handkerchief over his mouth, and murmurs, "I suppose that was the odour of sanctity." That works for me on several levels: there's a dry touch of gallows humour, which always attracts me; it tells me something about the bishop's character and his relationship with the king; and it conveys how horribly disgusting the disease is and what a miserable way it would be to go. But the only specifically historical detail is the comment about the "odour of sanctity". The smell itself, like the disease, could be from any age.

Last year I read a historical novel in which the writer never missed an opportunity to describe the stink of middens and latrines, which regularly made the heroine feel sick and/or swoony. (I can't remember what the book was or I'd attribute it; it was medieval, it wasn't Elizabeth Chadwick, and the constant harping on latrines is the only other thing I can remember about it). This didn't work for me. It was tedious after the first repetition, and I'm not sure what it was intended to tell me, except perhaps that the heroine had rather modern sensibilities. I found it odd, since I imagine that the people of the time (i.e. the characters, including the heroine) would be accustomed to the smell of a midden and would no more notice it than I notice the smell of exhaust fumes. It seemed to have no particular significance except description for description's sake, and unlike descriptions of period clothes, jewellery, architecture etc, it wasn't specific to the setting and gave me no particular sense of time and place.

So what do you think? Is smell a sense that is particularly important in historical fiction, more so than in other types of fiction? If so, why - or why not - and have you any favourite examples?

12 April, 2006

Cover art, part 2

There's a strong current convention in 'girl'-type historical novels for the cover to feature a lady in period costume with her face partially or completely obscured (the headless gowned lady cover).

The equal and opposite convention in 'guy'-type historical novels, those that are presumably aimed at a male readership, is for the cover to feature an item of military hardware set against a faded-out landscape background suggestive of exotic locations (mountains and seascapes seem to be popular). Some examples:

Simon Scarrow's Eagle series about the Roman army during the invasion of Britain in 43 AD

Conn Iggulden's Emperor series about Julius Caesar (it's pedantic to observe that Julius Caesar was the last Dictator of the Republic, rather than an emperor in the later sense)

Tim Severin's Odinn's Child about the Norseman Thorgeils and his travels through 11th-century North America, Iceland and Ireland

These covers promise an adventure story about soldiers and battles in far-flung places. The first two deliver that. Odinn's Child, despite the impression given by the cover art, is not a military adventure at all. I found it an enjoyable read (review forthcoming in due course), part 11th-century travelogue and part retelling of the Vinland Sagas, but heroic warrior epic it is not. The nearest Thorgeils gets to a battlefield is being knocked cold five minutes into the Battle of Clontarf. I remember reading it the first time round and wondering on every page when the big battle scene was coming, and having to go back and read it again on its own terms when I'd got to the end and worked out what kind of book it really is. Some months ago I got talking to a man in my local bookshop who was a great fan of historical military adventure and was looking for a new paperback that he hadn't already read. Since we liked some of the same things, we got to swopping book recommendations. He couldn't remember author names or titles, but he recognised books he'd read when he saw them. It turned out that he'd read almost everything in the shop - the entire Sharpe series (twice), all Colleen McCullough's First Man in Rome series, all of CS Forester, all of Patrick O'Brian, all of Simon Scarrow, all of Conn Iggulden, all of Manfredi, etc, etc (I eventually sold him Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom on the grounds that it was Sharpe with battleaxes and Vikings instead of rifles and Frenchmen). The one title he did remember spontaneously was Odinn's Child. He'd bought it on the strength of the cover as his holiday reading, been very disappointed that it wasn't at all what he was expecting, and warned me not to buy it or anything else by the same author because "it's really boring, it goes on and on and nothing happens". As I said above, I wouldn't rate it so harshly myself, but I can certainly see what he meant - the cover promises a military epic and the content doesn't provide one. No wonder he was disappointed. So, okay, the cover got a sale, but it got a sale to a very unsatisfied customer who was now eager to warn off other potential purchasers.

Lest it be thought that I only ever carp about book covers, here are a couple that I really like.

The Reckoning by Sharon Penman. The cover art captures the stand-off between Edward I and Llewelyn the Last that drives most of the book's action. And the blurb sets the romance element (Llewelyn's marriage to Eleanor de Montfort) firmly in its context as part of the story, without excessive emphasis.

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. This is the 2001 Earthlight edition and I think it has much the best cover of the various editions on Amazon.co.uk. It clearly shows a confrontation between two cultures (and the architecture in the background tells you the cultures they are based on), in an opulent and sophisticated setting with a hint of a power vacuum (the empty dais). None of the individual characters dominates, although the key players in the story are recognisable. The detail hasn't come over very clearly in the picture but the original cover has a sort of jewelled complexity that suits the book very well.

Anyone else have a favourite book cover?

08 April, 2006

Misleading book covers

I recently read The Winter Mantle and posted a review. I was persuaded to give the book a go because its author, Elizabeth Chadwick, is regularly recommended on the Historical Novel Society (HNS) discussion list. I have always been put off her books previously by the heavy romance emphasis in the packaging. (‘Romance’ is used in this context in its modern meaning, that of a male-female love story).

For example, the back cover blurb says,

“Normandy 1067 - William may have conquered England, but it is a conquest of a different kind that one English earl has in mind..... From the moment he catches sight of Judith..... he knows he has found his future wife. But is the match between Saxon earl and Norman lady made in heaven or hell?”

Hmmm. That sort of breathless prose is pretty effective at making me put the book back on the shelf and go looking for something else.

The cover picture features a lady in a long cloak gazing across a river at a knight on horseback, with a castle rising dreamily out of mists in the background. Hmmm again.

The opening scene features Judith being dressed by her maid and selecting her best clothes and jewellery. By page 4 her attention has been caught by a big, muscular, handsome young man astride a powerful chestnut stallion. By page 11, said handsome young man (who is Waltheof, the English earl of the back cover blurb) has noticed Judith and is sufficiently attracted to her “to make him shift on the bench and adjust his braies*.”

This is a classic romance opening, and the cover blurb had already primed me to expect a romance. Hmmm again. I like some romance in a story, and tend to miss it if it’s entirely absent, but I’m not a great reader of novels where a boy-meets-girl or he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not storyline has to carry the entire plot all by itself. However, I have some faith in the HNS discussion list, and the presence of an Author’s Note was an encouraging sign. So I persevered, and am pleased that I did because the book was considerably more interesting than the beginning and the packaging had implied, as you can see in my review.

This isn’t an isolated incident. When I was hesitating over whether to give The Winter Mantle a try, I was reminded that similar romance-heavy packaging had deterred me from reading Sharon Penman’s historical novels for years. (I only discovered her when someone told me my battle scenes resembled hers). I like Sharon Penman’s novels a lot, especially the Welsh trilogy of Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, and was very annoyed that the packaging had put me off them for so long.

The back cover blurb from Here Be Dragons says,
“Joanna, a Princess caught between two warring worlds.... and torn between two loves...... The battle-torn land could not be more ravaged than her troubled, turbulent heart, and in a moment of confused, guilty passion that she will never forget, Joanna risks her peace of mind, her freedom.....even her life.”

The cover picture is a fine art painting showing a pensive lady doing embroidery in a garden.

Well, once I’d read the book I could see where the blurb writer and cover artist got this from, but I don’t think it gives a fair picture of the novel, which deals with Llewelyn the Great, King John, Welsh and Norman-French culture and the epic military and political events of the time, as well as with Joanna and her emotional turmoil. Had the packaging given more emphasis to the history and less to the romance element, I’d have found it much more attractive.

I wonder how many more good books I’ve missed because they’ve been misleadingly packaged as ‘romance’? I’m learning to ignore cover blurbs and cover art and look for the Author’s Note instead, but I don’t suppose that’s the intended effect. (Though it could be worse; few modern covers are as sensational as this one from the 1950s, which it seems also didn't reflect the content of the book.)

I've said earlier, in the context of historical accuracy, that I like a 'does what it says on the tin' approach so that I can see what sort of book it is and judge whether it's likely to suit my tastes. It seems to me that cover art and cover copy that doesn't reflect the content of the book makes it harder to identify new books that I might like, and has the unfortunate tendency to send me back to the safe harbour of an author whose work I'm already familiar with.

Does anyone else react to covers this way? What appeals to you, and what prompts you to put the book right back on the shelf?

*Braies: medieval equivalent of underpants, not unlike boxer shorts but with a drawstring or belt at the waist instead of elastic.

06 April, 2006

The Winter Mantle, by Elizabeth Chadwick. Book review

Edition reviewed, Time Warner, 2002, ISBN 0-7515-2958-3.

The Winter Mantle is set in England and Normandy, with an excursion to Asia Minor, in 1067-1098. It focuses on two marriages, that of Waltheof, English Earl of Huntingdon, to Judith, niece of William the Conqueror, and that of their daughter Matilda to the Norman knight Simon de Senlis. All the major characters are historical figures.

The novel is strong on characterisation and relationships. The four main leads, Waltheof, Judith, Simon and Matilda are all individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses. They are not necessarily likeable all the time - there were occasions when I would have liked to slap Waltheof for his indecision and would have liked to shake Judith out of her self-righteousness - but that makes them more real. The novel explores two contrasting marriages, both made for political reasons but developing into quite different relationships. Waltheof and Judith are hopelessly unsuited from the beginning, despite their physical attraction to each other - theirs is a carnal marriage that begins in happiness and ends in misery. Simon and Matilda seem to be less extreme characters and their relationship matures differently. As well as the two marriages, the novel also explores an extramarital affair, relationships between parents and their children (over more than one generation), and the friendship between Simon and Waltheof.

Another strength of the novel is its attention to historical detail, and the presence of a helpful Author’s Note. I don’t have specialist knowledge of early Norman England, so I’m not in a position to pronounce on historical accuracy in any great detail, but it feels convincing. The details of everyday life in the period are lovingly described, from architecture to clothing to furniture to food, providing a great deal of period colour.

The novel has an episodic structure with gaps of many years between some sections, so you do have to pay attention to the dates and locations given in the chapter headings. I personally would have liked much more on the political background. The Harrying of the North, Edgar Atheling’s flight to Scotland, rebellions against William the Conqueror and his son William Rufus, and the First Crusade are all touched on as part of the background to the development of the central relationships. I personally found it frustrating that this wide canvas was only hinted at. But part of the value of historical fiction is that it can provoke curiosity about a period I didn’t know I was interested in, so it may prompt me to go and do some research. For example, I’m now curious as to how Matilda met and married David of Scotland in later life; was this connected to the marriage of Henry I to Margaret Atheling’s daughter Edith? I’m also mildly intrigued by Waltheof’s polar bear cloak (the Winter Mantle of the title) and wonder if it really existed; it’s the kind of valuable garment that could just possibly have been mentioned in a will. Of such intriguing details is historical fiction made.

A well-researched tale of emotional relationships in early Norman England, with lots of historical colour and detail.

Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

02 April, 2006

Roman water infrastructure in post-Roman Britain. Part 2: Post-Roman survival

Part 1 listed some examples of sophisticated Roman water engineering in British towns and fortresses. How much of this infrastructure survived into the post-Roman period and for how long?

There is evidence that at least some water supply systems were maintained very late in, or after, the Roman period. For example, a timber-lined water trench was constructed in York some time in the fourth century AD (Ottaway 2004), and in St Albans (Roman Verulamium) a new water main had been laid later than the fourth-century Roman levels, probably some time in the fifth century (I can’t find a link online and haven’t got the book to hand, but this Amazon review mentions it). The Roman sewer system excavated at Church Street, York, is considered to have been used until the late 4th or early 5th century, on the basis of pottery finds (Buckland 1976).

Even when maintenance had ceased, some of the infrastructure may well have remained operational for a considerable time. Complex pumping devices such as the London bucket-chain system (see part 1) would probably have broken down fairly quickly without regular maintenance and repair. Wells, however, could have been used until they became contaminated or blocked; it seems logical to me that common sense prompts people to continue using existing infrastructure as long as it still works and is still useful. There is a suggestion that the seventh-century monastery founded by St Hild at Whitby on the Yorkshire coast may have utilised the well from a Roman signal station on the same site (Mundahl-Harris 1997), though no evidence is quoted for or against. (No definite trace of a Roman signal station on Whitby cliffs has been found, apart from a few Roman coins from an excavation in the 1930s, but as the two known signal stations either side are out of sight of each other, I think it very likely that there was one in between, and it may well have been at Whitby).

Sophisticated aqueducts such as those serving Lugdunum in Gaul (modern Lyon; see part 1) would fail as soon as one of the closed siphons leaked or an arch collapsed. There is less to go wrong with a simple gravity-fed aqueduct consisting of a pipe in a trench laid along natural contours. Such systems could have functioned for a long period until they fractured, collapsed or silted up. Wooden water pipes (bored-out logs, like the ones discovered at Colchester) supplying spring water to Vindolanda fort on Hadrian’s Wall were still working almost 2000 years after they were laid, efficiently enough to flood the archaeological excavation that discovered them.

One item of documentary evidence can be added to the archaeological evidence. In his Life of St Cuthbert, Bede describes a visit by St Cuthbert and the then queen of Northumbria to Lugubalia (modern Carlisle) in 685 AD, where the local citizens showed them the town walls and ‘a remarkable fountain, formerly built by the Romans’ (Chapter 27).

This suggests to me that Carlisle probably had a gravity-fed aqueduct that was still working and still serving a street fountain (or possibly a fountain in what had once been a private house or a baths complex), and that the local inhabitants knew about it and were proud of it. Perhaps they still used it.

I think it is also noteworthy that Bede and/or his informant knew who built the fountain, which suggests that some knowledge of Britain’s Roman heritage was still extant when Bede was writing in the 730s. It is sometimes claimed, usually on the basis of the poem The Ruin (from the 10th-century Exeter Book manuscript), that the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) were ignorant of the Roman past and superstitiously believed that Roman buildings had been made by giants. Very possibly some people did; but Bede’s mention of the fountain at Carlisle indicates that this was not always the case. It can be argued that knowledge of the Romans and their architecture was reintroduced from Continental records by St Augustine’s missionaries from the Roman Catholic church and that this was the source of Bede’s knowledge. However, it should be noted that Bede did not have accurate information on the building of the Antonine Wall and Hadrian’s Wall; in his Ecclesiastical History he follows Gildas’ erroneous assertion that the Britons built the Antonine Wall and that the Romans then built Hadrian’s Wall and left immediately, leaving the Britons to man it (Book I Ch. 12). It seems unlikely that records reintroduced from the Continent by the Roman church would have known the origin of a fountain in Carlisle but not known who built the two major defensive structures in northern Britain. It seems to me that some continuity of local tradition is a simpler explanation than loss and reintroduction of information.

I interpret the information as follows: Towns and military sites in Roman Britain were provided with engineered water supply systems, which were maintained on at least some sites up to or after the end of the Roman period. Some of these systems, gravity-fed underground aqueducts in particular, were sufficiently simple and robust that they could have continued to function for a considerable time even after maintenance had ceased. The underground water pipes at Vindolanda were still working after nearly 2000 years. Bede’s mention of the fountain in Carlisle is consistent with a working gravity-fed aqueduct there in 685 AD. This was probably unusual, as Bede thought it was worthy of mention and the locals thought it was worth showing off to visiting dignitaries, but it was not necessarily unique; the Vindolanda water pipes show that much longer survival was possible. The origin of the fountain was known to Bede and/or Bede’s informant, although there is no indication as to whether anyone still understood how it worked. It is possible, and may even be probable, that similar systems survived in other Roman towns and forts, and that they continued to be used as a source of fresh water by populations living on those sites for a considerable period, perhaps centuries. (How large those populations were, and how long they stayed, is a separate question). It’s often assumed that a major reason for people to continue living in or near Roman towns and forts was the presence of surviving defensive fortifications. I wonder if the presence of a surviving water supply may also have played some role?

What do you think?

Bede, Life of St Cuthbert. Translation available online.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Classics, 1968.
Buckland PC, The environmental evidence from the Church Street Roman sewer system. York Archaeological Trust, 1976.
Mundahl-Harris S, St Hilda and her times. Caedmon Press, Whitby, 1997.
Ottaway P. Roman York. Tempus Publishing, 2004.