28 January, 2008

Cochrane: Britannia’s Sea Wolf, by Donald Thomas. Book review

First published 1978. Edition reviewed: Cassell 1999, ISBN 0-304-35282-9

This historical biography recounts the colourful career of Thomas Cochrane, later 10th Earl of Dundonald, whose daring naval exploits during and shortly after the Napoleonic Wars were far more outrageous than any novelist would dare to invent.

Cochrane was born in 1775 to an eccentric aristocratic father with a large ancestral estate but very little money, who proceeded to lose what was left of the family fortune by inventing various scientific innovations (such as gas lighting) by accident whilst looking for something else. The young Cochrane entered the Royal Navy as a midshipman in 1793, through the good offices of his uncle Captain Alexander Cochrane. His astonishing military talent was soon displayed when he was given command of a tiny warship, the Speedy. One of his most daring and spectacular actions was the capture of a Spanish frigate, the Gamo, which was far superior to the Speedy in size and armament. He first deceived the Gamo’s officers by flying the US flag, which allowed him to get so close to the frigate that its guns literally fired over his head and could do minimal damage, while his own guns could be angled upwards to rake the Gamo’s gundecks with shot. After about an hour of this, with the Spanish captain dead and the crew demoralised, Cochrane led a boarding party and by a mixture of cunning and ferocity convinced the Spanish to surrender. Further actions saw his tiny ship capture and destroy enemy shore forts, and destroy a squadron of French cavalry on the coast road, as well as taking numerous ships as prizes. Napoleon called him “le loup des mers”, the Sea Wolf, and later his Spanish adversaries in Chile were to call him El Diablo, the Devil.

Remarkably, Cochrane’s military successes were accomplished with very few casualties, often very few on either side. Frederick Marryat, who served under Cochrane as a midshipman (later becoming a captain and a successful novelist), wrote of him, “I never knew any one as careful of the lives of his ship’s company as Lord Cochrane, or any one who calculated so closely the risks attending any expedition”.

However, Cochrane’s military skill was only equalled by his talent for making enemies on his own side. He conducted a long-running feud with the Admiralty’s officials, who refused to buy his prizes and tried to avoid giving him the coveted promotion to post-captain. At one point they resorted to giving him command of a wallowing tub of a collier and stationed him in the Orkneys for a year in an attempt to keep him out of their hair. One can sympathise to some extent, as Cochrane was irascible, uncompromising, unforgiving and supremely confident to the point of arrogance, evidently not an easy man to get along with.

Nevertheless, the official system of naval procurement and some of the men who ran it deserved all the trouble he could possibly cause. The scale of corruption and mismanagement in the Admiralty in the early years of the nineteenth century was astonishing. Ships were built of substandard timber that rotted almost as fast as it was laid, and the metal nails that held a ship together were stolen by corrupt contractors and replaced with false heads and tips, with predictably fatal results. Work, if done at all, was charged for several times over. Cables could be hundreds of feet short of the specified length. Provisions were frequently rancid. Valuable copper compass mounts were stolen and replaced with iron, which deflected the ship’s compass and meant it might misread by 30 degrees or more, quite enough to put a ship hopelessly out of position and aground on rocks or reefs, as Cochrane found out to his cost when his frigate narrowly escaped being wrecked on the Brittany coast. A Commission of Enquiry conducted at the end of the Napoleonic Wars estimated that anything up to a quarter of the annual government expenditure on the navy had simply vanished into the pockets of fraudsters. It seems remarkable that Britain ever got a fleet to sea at all, and still more remarkable that Nelson and his colleagues managed to defeat not only the external enemy but the enemy at home as well.

Instead of putting up with the system, Cochrane stood for Parliament on a ticket of naval reform. In politics, he displayed an extraordinary mix of guile and naivete. On the one hand, he must be one of the very few men ever to have comprehensively outmanoeuvred the grasping voters of a Rotten Borough (in his case, Honiton), who to their chagrin found they had elected him to Parliament without the customary payment for their votes. On the other, he was shouted down in Parliament (which was evidently at least as much of an unedifying bear pit then as Prime Minister’s Questions is now) with little achieved for his cause, and was then embroiled in a Stock Exchange fraud by his crooked uncle.

The fraud could have come straight from the pages of The Count of Monte Cristo. The crooked uncle made a fortune in speculative share dealings and skipped before the subsequent trial delivered its verdict; Cochrane stayed to plead his innocence and was jailed after a biased trial. He promptly escaped from prison by means of some heroics with a smuggled rope, took his seat in Parliament, was arrested again, incarcerated in an unventilated dungeon which threatened to break his health, and was finally persuaded by his friends to pay a fine as a condition of his liberty, which he did with the defiant words, “I submit to robbery that I may protect myself from murder”.

Cochrane was now permanently out of a job with the Royal Navy, but other governments were eager to employ his talents. In 1818, Cochrane accepted the post of commanding admiral of the Chilean navy in Chile’s war of independence against Spain.

His career as a mercenary admiral in Chile followed the by now familiar pattern, defeating the Spanish military with daring and panache by land and sea, and then being done out of most of the rewards by more politically adept governments and rivals. After Chile, he fought equally successfully for Brazil in their war of independence against Portugal, and then with rather more mixed results for the Greeks in their attempt to throw off Turkish rule. At the age of 54, having gained massive fame and rather more modest financial rewards, Cochrane came home for good. For the rest of his life he applied himself with undaunted energy to campaigning to clear his name of the Stock Exchange fraud and inventing various ingenious military devices such as saturation bombardment and gas warfare, few of which were taken up. He died aged 85, having outlived most of his enemies, and was lauded by the Victorian public as a hero to rival Nelson. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Nor was the romance in Cochrane’s life only of the military variety. At the age of 39, he fell in love with Kitty Barnes, an eighteen-year-old beauty with no money or prospects, whereupon another uncle, the only one of the family with any money, threatened to disinherit him. Undeterred, Cochrane and Kitty eloped together to Scotland, got married no less than three times, had four sons and a daughter, at least one of whom accompanied them on campaign in South America, and lived happily ever after.

This is a clear, engaging and very readable biography of a man whose extraordinary life needs no embellishment whatsoever. As you will have gathered, the author succeeded in gaining my admiration for Cochrane. Yet the biography doesn’t idolise him. For all his military brilliance, Cochrane was his own worst enemy and much of his misfortune came from his political ineptitude and the ease – one could almost say the determination – with which he made and retained enemies in high places. Once Cochrane decided he hated someone, there was no possibility of compromise or of letting bygones be bygones. Nothing short of total victory would satisfy him, and this capacity to stoke the flames of a feud alienated men who might otherwise have been his allies. The author points out that Cochrane’s all-too-frequent response to officials who crossed his will was to flounce out and threaten to resign. While he was undoubtedly a star he was also something of a prima donna.

Think of every fictional action hero you have ever admired – Zorro, Hornblower, Aubrey, Sharpe – roll them all into one and move up a gear, and you get some idea of Cochrane’s extraordinary career. A remarkable man who lived a remarkable life, far outshining his fictional counterparts.

Has anyone else read it?

24 January, 2008

January recipe: Seville orange tart

It’s the third week in January, and the Seville oranges are back in the shops again, all the more delightful for being available only three weeks of the year. Last year I posted on Seville orange marmalade and some of the stories associated with it.

But marmalade isn’t the only use for Seville oranges. Their wonderfully sharp and aromatic flavour makes them ideal for puddings as well. Here’s one:

Seville orange tart

For the pastry:
8 oz (approx 250 g) plain flour
3 oz (approx 100 g) icing sugar
4 oz (approx 125 g) butter
1 egg
Or you can use ready-made pastry if you prefer

For the filling:
2 oz (approx 50 g) butter
5 oz (approx 140 g) caster sugar
2 eggs
2 Seville oranges

To make the pastry:
Cream the butter and icing sugar until pale and fluffy.
Beat in the egg.
Beat in the flour to form a dough.
This quantity of pastry is enough for three 7-inch tart cases, so divide the dough into three and freeze what you don’t need immediately. (It’s the same pastry that I use for strawberry cheesecake).
Wrap one portion in cling film or foil and refrigerate for about an hour.
Roll out the pastry on a floured work surface, and line a greased tart tin about 7 inches (approximately 18 cm) in diameter. Don’t try to roll it out too thin. If the pastry breaks or tears when you lift it into the tin, don’t worry too much. Press the broken edges back together like Plasticene and you’ll probably get away with it.
Bake the empty tart case in a hot oven (about 200 C) for about 15 minutes until golden brown and set. You can go through the palaver of blind-baking with the pastry weighted down with beans or marbles if you like, but I never bother.

To make the filling:
Put the butter, sugar and orange rind in a bowl over a pan of simmering water, and stir until the butter has melted and the sugar dissolved.
Beat in the eggs one at a time.
Remove the bowl from the heat, and beat in the juice of both oranges.
Pour into the cooked tart case.
Bake at about 180 C for about 15 minutes until the filling is set.
Serve hot or cold, with whipped cream if liked.

I generally expect to get about 6 slices out of this recipe, but it depends how large a slice you like.
The cooked tart will keep for 2-3 days at room temperature, if it gets the chance.

17 January, 2008

Human sacrifice in Anglo-Saxon England

Did the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) conduct human sacrifice before their conversion to Christianity?

Evidence from related cultures

The Roman writer Tacitus is quite clear that the Germanic tribes in Continental Europe used human sacrifice in the 1st century AD:

Mercury is the deity whom they chiefly worship, and on certain days they deem it right to sacrifice to him even with human victims.

The same summer a great battle was fought between the Hermunduri and
the Chatti [….]The war was a success for the Hermunduri,
and the more disastrous to the Chatti because they had devoted, in the
event of victory, the enemy's army to Mars and Mercury, a vow which
consigns horses, men, everything indeed on the vanquished side to
--Annals of Imperial Rome, Book XIII.

Mercury was the Latin name for the god known to the English and Germans as Woden and to the Norse as Odin.

There is also clear evidence of human sacrifice among the Norse (‘Vikings’) of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, who were neighbours of the early English. The names of the gods we know about were the same in both cultures, so it is possible that other aspects of their religions were also shared. In the tenth century, an Arab diplomat, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, wrote a detailed description of the Rus, who were Norse traders living on the River Volga in what is now Russia. In it he describes the funeral of one of the Rus leaders:

When the man of whom I have spoken died, his girl slaves were asked, "Who will die with him?" One answered, "I.”
Then they laid her at the side of her master; the old woman known as the Angel of Death re-entered and looped a cord around her neck and gave the crossed ends to the two men for them to pull. Then she approached her with a broad-bladed dagger, which she plunged between her ribs repeatedly, and the men strangled her with the cord until she was dead.

Another Arab chronicler, ibn Rustah, described a different form of funeral sacrifice among the Rus:

When one of their notables dies, they make a grave like a large house and put him inside it. [….] They also put his favourite wife in with him, still alive. Then the grave door is sealed and she dies there.
--Quoted in Brondsted, 1965, p. 305.

A grave excavated in Birka, eastern Sweden, is consistent with this practice. The grave contained two women, one richly attired and the other lying in a strange twisted position, and was interpreted by the excavator as the grave of a wealthy woman and a serf who had suffocated in the burial chamber (Brondsted 1965, p 293).

Adam of Bremen, writing in 1070, described extensive human sacrifice at the temple of Old Uppsala in Sweden:

There is a festival at Uppsala every nine years […] The sacrifice is as follows; of every kind of male creature, nine victims are offered. By the blood of these creatures it is the custom to appease the gods. Their bodies, moreover, are hanged in a grove which is adjacent to the temple. This grove is so sacred to the people that the separate trees init are believed to be holy because of the death or putrefaction of the sacrificial victims. There even dogs and horses hang beside human beings.
--History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen

Evidence from Anglo-Saxon England

So, it seems reasonably clear that the 1st-century Germans and the 10th-century Scandinavians carried out human sacrifice. What about the early English?

Documentary evidence

There is no direct reference to human sacrifice in documentary sources. Bede says that when King Oswald of Northumbria was killed in battle in 642,

… the king that slew him commanded his head, hands, and arms to be cut off from the body, and set upon stakes.
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book 3 Ch. 12.

The remains were retrieved the following year by Oswald’s brother Oswy. This may indicate a ritual element, perhaps reminiscent of Tacitus’ description of dedicating a defeated enemy to the war gods. Or it may be a convenient way of identifying and humiliating the dead king, much as the heads of those executed for treason were displayed on London Bridge in medieval and Tudor England. Or both; these are not mutually exclusive.

Pope Gregory the Great sent priests Augustine and Mellitus to preach Christianity to the English in 597, and in 601 he wrote a letter of encouragement to Mellitus. This letter refers to animal sacrifice, but makes no mention of human sacrifice:

And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, [they may….] celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating.
--Bede, Book 1 Ch. 30.

This may just be absence of evidence; perhaps Gregory did not know what rites the English practiced, or did not think it right to mention such an unpleasant subject in a letter. However, it is notable that a later Pope, Gregory II, specifically mentioned the subject in a letter to Boniface who was preaching in Germany and Frisia and who had evidently asked for guidance on the practice of selling slaves for human sacrifice:

Among other difficulties which you face in those parts, you say that some of the faithful sell their slaves to be sacrificed by the heathen. This, above all, we urge you to forbid, for it is a crime against nature. Therefore, on those who have perpetrated such a crime you must impose a penance similar to that for culpable homicide.
--Letters of Boniface 16.

And in the Life of St Willibrord, written by Alcuin in the 8th century, the saint was threatened with death for having insulted the gods of people living between Frisia and Denmark:

The king was roused to intense fury and had a mind to avenge on the priest of the living God the insults which had been offered to his deities. For three whole days he cast lots three times every day to find out who should die; but as the true God protected his own servants, the lots of death never fell upon Willibrord nor upon any of his company, except in the case of one of the party, who thus won the martyr's crown.
--Life of Willibrord

Willibrord’s unfortunate follower might be considered an execution rather than a sacrifice as such, though the casting of lots to choose a victim is consistent with a ritual component.

The absence of such references in the letters to the Christian mission in England may indicate (but does not prove) that the use of human sacrifice was less widespread there.


The (probable) temple excavated at Yeavering in Northumberland contained a pit filled with animal remains, mostly ox skulls, but no human remains were noted (Hutton, 1993, p. 270). This is consistent with the references to animal but not human sacrifice in Pope Gregory’s letter to Mellitus, but does not prove that humans were never sacrificed, as such remains might have been disposed of elsewhere.

A small number of excavated graves from early England have features that are consistent with human sacrifice (Ellis Davidson 1992):

  • At Sewerby, in East Yorkshire, a woman with rich grave goods had been buried in a deep grave, and a second woman had been buried a few inches above her at the same time, laid face down and with a piece of a quernstone over her pelvis.

  • At Mitcham in Surrey, a grave excavated in 1905 contained a small woman laid face down between two men.

  • At Finglesham in Kent a man had been buried with grave goods and with a second body laid across him.

These may be instances of funeral sacrifices, as in the Norse grave at Birka and similar to the rites described for the Rus by the Arab writers.

Further evidence comes from Sutton Hoo, believed to be the royal cemetery of the Kings of the East Angles in the seventh century (Carver 1998). Mound 5 contained a cremation burial of a young adult who had died by several blade cuts to the head. One of the quarry pits dug to produce soil to build the mound contained a body without grave goods that had been buried, probably face down, at the same time as the mound was raised or very shortly afterwards. The excavator suggests that this person may have been killed as sacrifice, vengeance, punishment or vindictive attack by a stressed foreman – there is no evidence to say which (if any).

Other burials at Sutton Hoo included one with a dark stain around the neck that could have been the remains of a rope (Burial 49), a triple burial containing a decapitated man and two women buried face down on top of him (Burial 42), several burials in which the head had been removed and replaced in an odd position (wrong way round, on the shoulder, by the knee) or was missing altogether, a burial in which the body had apparently been folded over backwards (Burial 55), several burials with the wrists and/or ankles crossed over each other as though tied, several crouched burials, and one extraordinary grave containing a body stretched out as though hurdling or running and accompanied by unidentified pieces of timber (Burial 27). This last grave has been interpreted as a wooden plough buried with a ploughman (Ellis Davidson 1992), but the excavator noted that the timbers may be from some other object such as a spade or pieces of the gallows (Carver 1998). Radiocarbon dates ranged from the sixth to the eleventh century. A gallows had stood at the centre of the site, and was radiocarbon-dated to 690–980, contemporary with the date range of most of the strange burials (Carver 1998).

Were these strange burials at Sutton Hoo sacrifices or executions? The two need not be mutually exclusive. According to Julius Caesar, the Gauls of the 1st century BC sacrificed criminals to the gods:

They consider that the oblation of such as have been taken in theft, or in robbery, or any other offence, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent.

--The Gallic Wars, Book 6 Ch 16

The distinction between sacrifice and execution may be in part a matter of labelling. The strange burials may represent a dramatic method of despatch (reminiscent of the Roman use of criminals in the arena), or ritual killings, or both. The excavator says in his book, “..most seem to belong to the period after the conversion of East Anglia to Christianity. This group does not therefore offer strong evidence for human sacrifice.” (Carver 1998, p. 168). On the other hand, the historian Ronald Hutton cites the evidence from Sutton Hoo and Sewerby as, “fairly clear evidence [of human sacrifice] in Anglo-Saxon England” (Hutton, 1993, p. 274).


It seems certain that the early English knew of human sacrifice, since related and neighbouring cultures in Continental Europe and Scandinavia practised it. Whether they practised it themselves is open to question; the people who settled in late- and post-Roman Britain in the fourth and fifth centuries may have been drawn from tribes who did not practise the rite; they may not have taken the ritual with them, or they may have abandoned it in their new environment, perhaps because there were no large and long-established ritual centres such as the temple at Old Uppsala.

The display of Oswald’s head on the battlefield is reminiscent of ritual, and there is some archaeological evidence of burials consistent with human sacrifice, as at Sewerby or Sutton Hoo. The comparatively small number of such graves may represent absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence. Until the Sutton Hoo excavation in the 1990s, the existence of the strange burials there was completely unsuspected, and similar surprises may be awaiting the archaeologist’s trowel elsewhere. That said, well over 5000 Anglo-Saxon burials have been excavated in Britain (Hutton, 1993, p. 275), so if it was a widespread practice one might expect to have found more of them by now.

On the whole, I would agree with Hilda Ellis Davidson’s view (1992); that the early English certainly knew of human sacrifice but that it did not play an extensive part in their society, being reserved (if practised at all) for exceptional circumstances and/or times of crisis.

Full-text sources available online are linked in the text
Ellis Davidson HR. Human sacrifice in the late pagan period in north-western Europe. In: Carver M (ed.), The Age of Sutton Hoo. Boydell Press, 1992, ISBN: 0851153305
Carver M. Sutton Hoo: Burial ground of kings? British Museum Press, 1998, ISBN: 0-7141-0591-0.
Hutton R. The pagan religions of the ancient British Isles: their nature and legacy. Blackwell, 1993, ISBN:0-631-18946-7.
Brondsted J. The Vikings. Pelican, 1965, ISBN: 0-14-02-0459-8.

10 January, 2008

Winter blossom - and a candidate for smallest pub in the country

"When gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of favour," goes the old country saying. Among a stand of gorse there's always a little bit of it in blossom somewhere, even in the darkest depths of winter, and the bright yellow flowers are a welcome promise of spring to come. This especially exuberant specimen is growing on the shores of Alton Water, a reservoir near Ipswich in south-east Suffolk.

When the reservoir was constructed, it drowned the minor roads that used to cross the valley, and a bridge was built to connect the two parts of the village of Tattingstone. The main part of the village, with the church and most of the houses, is on the left shore in the photo, the pub is on the right shore. Which explains why it was essential to build a bridge. If you can make out the numerous pale dots on the water around the bridge (click on the image to enlarge), they're greylag geese and black-headed gulls, both of which congregate in large numbers on the reservoir in winter.

Edit: I have been reminded that the main part of the village did have its own pub (see photo). The Orange Box was attached to the post office opposite the church, about the size of someone's front room, had a bar and a minuscule stove, and could cram in about 20 people at a pinch. Alas, 'tis now no more.


06 January, 2008

History meme – King Raedwald of the East Angles

Gabriele tagged me for this meme, which requires the player to list seven weird, obscure or random facts about a historical character. I did Eadwine of Deira and Northumbria in a variant of this meme this time last year, so this one is about his ally King Raedwald of the East Angles (flourished around 610s-620s).

1. Raedwald maintained a shrine containing altars to the English heathen gods and to the Christian god. Bede, as a good orthodox churchman, disapproved thoroughly, but as the shrine was still standing two generations after Raedwald’s time, presumably at least some of the East Anglian notables didn’t object to Raedwald’s attempt to hedge his bets.
(Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II Ch. 15)

2. Raedwald took his queen’s advice on both religious and foreign policy. He was baptised as a Christian in Kent, but on his return home his wife and advisors persuaded him to revert to his old faith (Bede, Book II Ch.15). In 616 or 617, he accepted a bribe or yielded to a threat and agreed to murder Eadwine of Deira, who at the time was living in exile at Raedwald’s court as his guest. Raedwald’s queen persuaded him to change his mind, telling him it was “unworthy in a great king to sell his best friend for gold, and worse still to sacrifice his royal honour, the most valuable of all possessions, for love of money.” (Bede Book II Ch. 13).

3. If Raedwald was the king buried in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo (the identification is not certain, but he is one of the most likely candidates), he kept a pet with a small bell on its collar, and the collar and bell (with or without the pet) was buried with him (Carver, p. 126-127).

4. If Raedwald was the Sutton Hoo man, he was buried with a remarkable ceremonial whetstone or sceptre. It was made of stone from the hills of Southern Scotland, and is paralleled by similar sceptre/whetstones found in Llandudno (Gwynedd, North Wales), Portsoy (Banff, Scotland), Collin (Dumfriesshire, Scotland), and Hough-on-the-Hill (Lincolnshire) (Laing and Laing 2001, p 103-104). Who says the small kingdoms of the seventh century were isolated from each other?

5. Raedwald’s family may have had dynastic connections with the family of Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s queen in the epic poem Beowulf, according to an intriguing hypothesis advanced by Sam Newton. The hypothesis suggests that Wealhtheow’s family, the Helmings, may also have been called Wylfings, and that Wylfings may be an alternative form of the name of Raedwald’s dynasty, the Wuffings.

6. Raedwald was Bretwalda, overlord of all the English kingdoms south of the Humber, some time in the first or second decades of the seventh century (Bede Book II Ch. 5). Since he was allied with Eadwine of Deira/Northumbria, Raedwald would also have had some (it's not known how much) political influence north of the Humber after 617, and thus he may have been the first English king to exercise some form of authority both North and South of the Humber.

7. The kings of East Anglia had a royal hall at Rendlesham (Rendil’s House) (Bede Book III Ch. 22), which is near the coast in south-east Suffolk and only a few miles from the Sutton Hoo burial site (location map here). Given the popularity of alliteration among royal English dynasties, it may be that Rendil was closely related to Raedwald, and the hall may also have been Raedwald’s royal residence. Is Raedwald’s hall under the modern village, waiting to be discovered by archaeology?

In theory I'm supposed to tag seven people, but I don't like tagging, so I'll just invite anyone who would like to join in!

Edited: in answer to queries, the rules can be found here.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Carver, M. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? British Museum Press, 1998, ISBN 0-7141-0591-0.
Laing L, Laing J. The Picts and the Scots. Sutton, 2001, ISBN 0-7509-2873-5.

02 January, 2008

The Secret Middle Ages: Discovering the Real Medieval World, by Malcolm Jones. Book review

Sutton Publishing, 2002, ISBN 0-7509-2685-6.

Many thanks to Elizabeth Chadwick for recommending this book!

The Secret Middle Ages is a survey of the neglected arts and crafts of the medieval period (roughly 1100 to 1600) in Britain and continental Europe including France, the Low Countries and Germany. The author comments that most studies of medieval art present only a partial picture, confined to religious art and the precious objects owned by the elite. His survey, by contrast, sets out to explore what he calls the “other half” of medieval art, the everyday objects accessible to the bulk of the population – biscuit moulds, furniture, cheap lead jewellery, personal seals, floor tiles, woodcuts in books that illustrate contemporary stories and sayings, and decorative carvings in churches such as misericords and carved capitals.

The book begins by discussing an inventory of 40 biscuit moulds owned by a wealthy businessman in Frankfurt in 1521. Pictorial biscuits were given as seasonal presents, a sort of edible greetings card (Now there's a tradition worth reviving!). Three-quarters of the moulds depict scenes that are non-religious, and about half are concerned with love in its courtly or erotic manifestations. So much for the popular view of the Middle Ages as a repressed society obsessed with religion!

Chapters on various themes follow. Popular religion covers lucky charms, talismans and souvenirs from saints’ shrines, official, unofficial and frankly absurd (who could resist St Uncumber, a bearded lady whose job it was to relieve women of their undesired husbands?). A survey of animals and their symbolism includes dogs, cats (including the association between cats and witches), exotic creatures such as baboons, and the small furry animals such as bunny rabbits, mice and squirrels that were often used as lovers’ pet names. Representations of monstrosity and folly deal with creatures such as Wild Men, mermaids, donkey-headed fools and races of people with tails, and a chapter on insult and humiliation reveals a startling range of insults and ingenious punishments. Being pushed off to hell in a wheelbarrow seems to have been a particular favourite on lively church wood carvings; the author doesn’t mention it, but I wonder if that image is related to the phrase, “going to hell in a handcart”?

A survey of proverbs and proverbial follies, such as shoeing a goose, driving a snail with a whip, sawing through the branch you’re sitting on, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or carrying daylight (or soup) in baskets, reveals the surprising antiquity of some of the phrases and figures of speech that are still in common use today. The archetypal "Irish joke" (What’s black and hangs from the ceiling? An Irish electrician) turns out to have a long provenance, except that in the Middle Ages it was applied to the inhabitants of Norfolk (UK) or fictional villages such as Gotham (UK) or Schilda (Germany).

The World Turned Upside Down was a popular motif in medieval art and literature, including flying pigs, hares that hunt and cook the huntsmen, animals playing musical instruments, and the reversal of gender roles (the woman wearing the trousers, the man spinning with a distaff). Many of the conventions of romantic love in use in the medieval period are still in use today, such as the heart symbol and the giving and receiving of love tokens such as flowers or trinkets. Two chapters on sexual and scatological imagery round off the book.

The Secret Middle Ages is a cornucopia of vivid, fascinating, humorous and frequently surprising insights into the rich and varied world of ordinary life in the Middle Ages. In some ways this world is very different from ours, for example, its evident misogyny is unattractive to modern ideas. In others, such as the conventions of romantic love and the many proverbs and phrases that are still in use today, it is very recognisable. The everyday objects surveyed in this eclectic book do more than much High Art to bring the Middle Ages to life – for example, the cheap little lead brooch in the shape of a violet with a romantic caption that was perhaps bought at a fair or from a pedlar by some village boy as a love-present for his girl.

The writing style is witty and engaging. In his preface, the author observes that he has, “…managed to forget my scholarly pretensions sufficiently often to seem like a person interested in what he is writing about”. As a result the book is a pleasure to read from beginning to end, as well as to dip into. Almost every page will raise a smile, or (unless you are already an expert) tell you something you didn’t know. An invaluable resource for anyone trying to, in the author’s words, “…get to grips with the puzzles and contradictions of an era that is both so like and so unlike our own.”

Entertaining, erudite and eclectic survey of the everyday arts and crafts of the Middle Ages.

Has anyone else read it?