Hot soup is a cheering meal when the clocks have changed and the weather starts to turn cold, and onion soup topped with crunchy bread and bubbling melted cheese is especially comforting on a cold, dark day. There are as many variations as there are cooks. Here’s mine. Serves 2 as a main meal, or 4 as a first course.
12 oz (approx 350 g) onions
Lard for frying
1.5 tsp (1.5 x 5 ml spoon) demerara sugar
2 tsp (2 x 5 ml spoon) dark soy sauce
1 pint stock
2 thick slices of bread, toasted
2 oz (approx 50 g) cheese, e.g. Cheddar or Gruyere
Peel the onions and cut into thin slices (approx 1/4 cm or 1/8 inch).
Heat the lard (or you can use cooking oil) in a medium-sized saucepan.
Add the onions and sugar and fry over a low heat for 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently. The sugar will caramelise to a nice golden brown coating on the onions. Be careful not to let it stick and burn, especially towards the end.
Add the stock and soy sauce, and season to taste with salt and black pepper.
Put a lid on the pan and simmer for approximately 30 minutes until the onions are soft and starting to disintegrate.
Grate or thinly slice the cheese.
Divide the soup between two heatproof bowls.
Float a slice of toasted bread on top of each bowl of soup, and top with the sliced or grated cheese.
Grill for 2-3 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbling (this is why you have to use heatproof soup bowls).
Serve with fresh bread.
31 October, 2008
28 October, 2008
Before they converted to Christianity and adopted the Roman calendar, the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) reckoned time using a system of lunar months. Each cycle of the moon, probably from full moon to full moon, was a month. The year began at the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. There were two seasons, summer, when the days were longer than the nights, and winter, when the nights were longer than the days (See my earlier post for a summary of the early English calendar.)
The tenth month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of October, was called Winterfilleth.
Bede, writing in 725, tells us:
But originally, they divided the year as a whole into two seasons, summer and winter, assigning the six months in which the days are longer than the nights to summer, and the other six to winter. Hence they called the month in which the winter season began “Winterfilleth”, a name made up from “winter” and “full moon”, because winter began on the full moon of that month.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.
This would place the beginning of Winterfilleth at the first full moon after the autumn equinox. The equinox marks the point at which the night and day are of exactly equal length, so after the autumn equinox the nights are longer than the days. The autumn equinox falls on around 22 September in the modern calendar, so Winterfilleth would begin in late September or early October, depending on the phase of the moon relative to the solar year. (See my July post for an introduction to the difficulty of managing a calendar with lunar months and a solar year).
Bede’s statement indicates clearly that the early English lunar months were reckoned from full moon to full moon, rather than at some other point of the lunar cycle (such as the new moon, or the first crescent, or whatever). It is possible to argue that for some reason the season of winter began at the full moon and the month began at some other point, but this seems unnecessarily complicated to me.
Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.
22 October, 2008
Edition reviewed: Back Bay Books, 2008. ISBN 978-0-316-06577-1. 368 pages
The Blood of Flowers is set in Iran in the 1620s, during the reign of Shah Abbas. All the characters are fictional (Shah Abbas himself gets a walk-on part).
The unnamed narrator of the novel is a girl of fifteen when her father dies, leaving her and her mother alone with no livelihood. Her wealthy uncle Gostaham, a successful carpet designer and manager of the Shah’s carpet workshop in the magnificent city of Isfahan, takes them in as poor relations. His wife Gordiyeh resents their presence, and never misses an opportunity to remind them of their lowly status. The narrator chafes at being treated as a servant, and is eager to develop her talents as a carpet maker and designer under Gostaham’s kindly tutelage, But her impetuous nature leads her into a series of rash decisions that threaten her and her mother’s security, and even their lives. Can she survive, and has she learned enough from her mistakes to build a new life?
This is an elegant and deceptively simple story of a young woman’s coming of age, set against the background of the flourishing carpet industry in 17th-century Isfahan. For me, the unusual setting was a key strength of the novel. I knew virtually nothing about it beforehand, and The Blood of Flowers does an excellent job of bringing Isfahan to bustling life. The food, clothing, climate, buildings, bath-houses, markets and bazaars are all described, together with techniques of carpet design and manufacture, social structure and customs. Yet the novel never feels weighed down by detail. I found the social structures and customs especially interesting. The narrator experiences life in a wealthy family home, in the slums inhabited by poor workers and servants, and even as a beggar on the streets, so the novel provides a wide-ranging view of life as lived by different social classes. It also explores social customs such as the sigheh (temporary marriage) and the segregation of women. Seven folk-tales or fables are interspersed with the main narrative, and while these were of variable success as stories in their own right and as counterpoint to the main narrative, they helped to create the impression of a rich culture with a long heritage. In this respect they reminded me of the rabbit folk-tales in Watership Down. The ones I thought worked best were the ones identified by the author as based on traditional Iranian tales.
The characters are attractively human, with a mixture of good and bad qualities. Gostaham is kindly, but under his wife’s thumb. The narrator means well and is warm-hearted, but she is reckless, often thoughtless, and incapable of telling the difference between an inspired idea and a disastrous one. Even the unkind aunt Gordiyeh, who is capable of treating her poor relations cruelly, can be kind when she does not feel threatened.
The coming-of-age story, with its none-too-subtle messages about female empowerment, seemed to me to be trying a bit too hard to prove its modern relevance. Not knowing the first thing about 17th-century Iranian society, I have no idea whether the narrator’s eventual fate is credible. To its credit, though, the novel presents her as exceptional, and shows plenty of other female characters in rather more conventional roles.
The writing style is clear and deceptively simple. I’d describe it as ‘transparent’, in the sense that I stopped noticing the words and felt as if I was looking through them and watching the characters getting on with their lives in their own world. In a way, it reminded me of traditional folk-tales. The novel is recounted entirely in first person by the narrator, who is never named. I often dislike first-person novels, but this one worked well, perhaps because the narrator seems to be more interested in the world and the people around her than on brooding over her own troubles.
I found the ending excessively abrupt, so much so that at first I thought there must be some pages missing. Having seen the narrator grow up and take control of her own life, I would have liked to know what she did with it, even if only in an epilogue. As it is, the novel finishes with a ‘folk-tale’ invented by the author (i.e., not one based on a traditional tale). I presume that it’s a subtle metaphor for the narrator’s fate, but even after reading it several times, I confess that it’s too subtle for me.
There’s a helpful Author’s Note, and a question-and-answer session with the author, which explains some of the background to the story. A map would have been useful for readers who aren’t familiar with the geography of Iran, though most of the story takes place within the city of Isfahan and the references to other places are mostly peripheral.
Elegant story about a young woman finding her way in life, which will also painlessly teach you a lot about carpet making and 17th-century Iranian culture.
Has anyone else read it?
15 October, 2008
In an earlier post I reviewed the limited evidence relating to human sacrifice in early England (‘Anglo-Saxon’ England), and came to the conclusion that the early English almost certainly knew of human sacrifice, but that there is little evidence that they practised it to any great extent. A small number of graves, such as the strange burials at Sutton Hoo, are consistent with human sacrifice but other explanations are possible. I personally think it most likely to have been a rare event reserved for exceptional circumstances.
If human sacrifice was practised at all in early England, what form might the rites have taken? As there’s little evidence for it at all, it won’t surprise you to hear that there’s no definite evidence for the rites that might have been employed. However, it may be possible to make some extrapolations from related cultures, with due caution and the usual caveat that other interpretations are possible.
The body buried without grave goods and probably face down in one of the quarry pits used to construct Mound 5 at Sutton Hoo may have been a sacrifice, but was not well enough preserved to give any evidence for the cause of death (Carver 1998).
The group of anomalous burials (see earlier post for details) surrounded the site of a gallows, so it is plausible (though not certain) that at least some of them had died on it. Whether they represent sacrifices or executions, or indeed whether such a distinction can be made, is not known. One body had a dark stain around its neck that could have been the remains of a rope. Others were decapitated, but whether this happened at or after death is not known. The dates for this group of burials span the period from the sixth to the eleventh century (Carver 1998).
Iron Age Europe: the bog bodies
The Roman historian Tacitus, writing in the 1st century AD, says that the tribes living in the areas that are now Germany and southern Denmark sacrificed human victims to Mercury, but doesn’t say what rite was used.
Mercury is the deity whom they chiefly worship, and on certain days they deem it right to sacrifice to him even with human victims.--Tacitus, Germania
He also says that the slaves who washed the wagon of the goddess Nerthus were drowned in a sacred lake, although this is attributed to a desire to maintain secrecy rather than to sacrifice as such.
Anon the chariot is washed and purified in a secret lake, as also the curtains; nay, the Deity herself too, if you choose to believe it. In this office it is slaves who minister, and they are forthwith doomed to be swallowed up in the same lake. Hence all men are possessed with mysterious terror; as well as with a holy ignorance what that must be, which none see but such as are immediately to perish.--Tacitus, Germania
Remarkably, a few human bodies from the Iron Age in northern Europe have survived to the present day, preserved in acid and waterlogged conditions in peat bogs. Readers in Britain will probably be most familiar with “Lindow Man”, discovered during peat cutting at Lindow Moss in Cheshire, in north-west England in 1984. The lower half of his body had presumably been destroyed by the peat-cutting machinery (unless someone found a nasty surprise in their azalea bed), leaving only the body above the waist and part of one lower leg. The investigations into the body have been described in clear and readable detail by Don Brothwell of the University of London (Brothwell 1986). Lindow Man had been struck at least twice on the top of the head by a blunt instrument, fracturing his skull. He also had a broken jaw and chipped tooth which may indicate another blow to the lower face, and a broken rib which may indicate a violent blow to his back. He had also been strangled by a twisted cord, his neck was broken, his throat had been cut, and there was a possible stab wound to his chest. The number of different types of injury seems excessive for an ordinary murder, and suggests a ritual death (Brothwell 1986). Hutton comments that it recalls the “triple death” of Irish legends (Hutton 1993).
Although many other bog bodies have been found from sites across northern Europe, including Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Britain and Ireland, many were either insufficiently preserved or insufficiently investigated to identify a cause of death. However, several other bog bodies show evidence for one or more of the types of injuries inflicted on Lindow Man:
- Borre Fen Man - hanging/strangulation, skull injury
- Borre Fen Woman (II) – skull injury, other fractures
- Elling Woman – hanging/strangulation
- Grauballe Man – throat cut, skull injury, other fractures
- Lindow Man - hanging/strangulation, throat cut, skull injury, chest wound (possible) other fractures (possible)
- Lykkegard Man - hanging/strangulation
- Osterby Man – beheading, skull injury
- Rendswuhren Fen Man – skull injury, chest wound
- Stidsholt Fen Woman – beheading
- Tollund Man – hanging/strangulation
- Werdingerveen Man – chest wound
--Brothwell 1986; Coles & Coles 1989
More than half of these bodies (6/11) had multiple types of injury, though Lindow Man had the widest range. Head injuries were the most common (6), perhaps intended to stun the victim out of mercy or convenience. The other modes of death include strangling or hanging (5), chest wounds (2) and cutting of the throat (2). Placing the body in a pool in the bog (all of them, by definition) may also have represented drowning, yet another mode of death. Other bog bodies have been found pinned down in the bog by stakes or branches and may have been drowned (a woman at Jelling in Denmark, a man and a girl at Windeby in north Germany, a man at Gallagh in Ireland), although it may also be possible that the bodies were placed in the bog after death and pinned down to prevent them floating to the surface of a pool. Two of these bodies had cords around the neck that might have been used for strangulation (Gallagh, the man at Windeby) (Coles & Coles 1989).
Some Irish legends feature a “Triple Death”. For example, Adomnan’s Life of Columba says that St Columba prophesied that Aed Dub (Aed the Black) would die by falling, drowning and stabbing.
And Aid, thus irregularly ordained, shall return as a dog to his vomit, and be again a bloody murderer, until at length, pierced in the neck with a spear, he shall fall from a tree into the water and be drowned--Adomnan, Life of Columba, Chapter XXIX
In another Irish legend, Diarmait mac Cerbaill, king of all Ireland, is killed by his foster-son Aed Dub by drowning, burning and stabbing (see Wikipedia).
The significance of the multiple modes of death is unknown. It has been suggested that certain modes of death were sacred to particular gods (Powell 1983), so perhaps a person killed using several modes was believed to influence several gods. Or it may be that the elaborate ritual was required to differentiate the sacrifice from a commonplace death – after all, people could drown by accident, or could be stabbed, beaten or strangled as a result of war, a brawl or an ordinary murder. Perhaps a multiple death was intended to mark the person out as a gift presented especially to the gods.
Norse documentary sources
Multiple modes of death are also found in documentary descriptions of Norse customs. 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 a human sacrifice at the funeral of one of the Rus leaders:
… 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.--Risala
According to the Icelandic poem Havamal, the Norse god Odin was hanged on the World Tree and stabbed with a spear.
I trow I hung on that windy Tree--Havamal
nine whole days and nights,
stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,
myself to mine own self given,
If we take hanging and strangling as equivalent, this is the same death as that meted out to the slave girl on the Volga, and Havamal is explicit that this is a sacrifice to Odin.
The Greek historian Procopius, writing in Byzantium in the 6th century AD, says of the inhabitants of Thule (modern Norway and Sweden):
This sacrifice they offer to Ares, since they believe him to be the greatest of the gods. They sacrifice the prisoner not merely by slaughtering him, but by hanging him from a beam or casting him among thorns, or putting him to death by other horrible methods.--Procopius, Gothic War. Quoted in Ellis Davidson (1964).
Ares is the Greek war-god, whom the Romans called Mars. Procopius presumably substituted the name of the Greek god he considered to be the nearest equivalent to the Norse deity concerned. The two most obvious candidates for a Norse war god are Tyr or Odin, both of whom could be considered gods of war.
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 in it 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
He is clear that the victims were hanged, and if his reference to “blood” is literal rather than poetic it may indicate that they were also stabbed, as described in Havamal and the account of the slave girl on the Volga.
The medieval Norse saga Gautrek’s Saga contains a vivid account of a sacrifice to Odin. In the saga, King Vikar prays to Odin for a favourable wind, and when the lots are drawn to decide who will be the sacrifice in payment, the lot falls to King Vikar himself. King Vikar tries to cheat his fate by staging a mock sacrifice. He stands on a tree stump with the soft intestines of a calf looped around his neck and fastened to a branch above, and one of his men thrusts a blunt wooden rod at him with the words, “Now I give you to Odin”. As soon as the words are uttered, the rod becomes a spear piercing King Vikar through, the intestine becomes a strong rope and the branch jerks the king into the air and hangs him (Ellis Davison 1964). Odin, the master of deceit, is not easily cheated.
This colourful story is from a late source and may be no more than vivid fiction, or it may be based on a genuine tradition of a rite used to send a victim to Odin by hanging and stabbing. It is consistent with Havamal, but if the saga writer was familiar with Havamal he could simply have copied the rite and added some dramatic details.
Irish and Norse legends, and accounts of Norse customs, all describe human sacrifice involving death by multiple methods. These might be dismissed as no more than bizarre stories invented by chroniclers about barbaric peoples of far away and long ago, if it were not for the evidence of the bog bodies.
These individuals demonstrate clearly that death by elaborate and multiple methods was inflicted in Iron Age northern Europe, including Britain, north Germany and Denmark, and the victims placed in the peat and water of bogs. The pattern of injuries varies from one to another, presumably indicating variations in the rite as well as variations in the survival of evidence. Wounding with sharp implements, hanging or strangulation, and violent blows to the head are all represented among the bodies, and their location in watery places may represent actual or metaphorical drowning. It is worth remembering that alternative rites, such as burning, would either leave no trace (if the ashes were dispersed) or might be difficult to distinguish from an ordinary cremation burial. Drowning and/or disposal in bogs might have been a common factor among ritual deaths, or just the common factor among the ones that happen to have left evidence for us to identify and interpret.
Exactly how widespread human sacrifice was, how long it persisted, and what rites were used when and in which societies, remains uncertain. No definite sacrificial victim from the early medieval period in England has yet been identified (Lindow Man has been dated to around the first century AD), which might be interpreted either as absence of evidence or evidence of absence. However, if human sacrifice was carried out in early England, one might reasonably conjecture that the rites involved would have been likely to resemble either those used on the earlier Iron Age bog bodies, or those recorded for later Norse culture.
Full-text sources available online are linked in the text
Brothwell D. The bog man and the archaeology of people. British Museum Press, 1986, ISBN 0-7141-1384-0.
Coles B, Coles J. People of the wetlands: bogs, bodies and lake-dwellers. Thames & Hudson, 1989, ISBN 0-500-02112-0
Ellis Davidson HR. Gods and myths of northern Europe. Penguin, 1964, ISBN 0-14-020670-1.
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.
Powell TGE. The Celts. Thames & Hudson, 1983, ISBN 0-500-27275-1.
05 October, 2008
Autumn is a time of plenty for anything that can eat berries. Every hedge seems to be laden with berries, mainly bright red (hawthorn, rose hips, rowan) or deep purple (blackberries, elderberries). Later in the winter, flocks of fieldfares (sometimes called winter thrushes, for this reason) will migrate from Scandinavia to feast on them, if the local birdlife has left them any. I'm told that supermarket car parks can be surprisingly rewarding birdwatching locations in the winter, owing to the propensity of the owners to brighten up the tarmac and trolley zone with bushes bearing red berries, which amounts to a sign saying "Free All You Can Eat Buffet" for the birds.
Ripe and ripening blackberries
Hawthorn berries (haws). Four or five months ago this bush would have been a mass of May blossom
Rose hips on a wild rose bush
Rowan tree, otherwise known as mountain ash.
Close up of rowanberries in a hedge.
01 October, 2008
Edition reviewed: Touchstone 2008, ISBN 978-0-7432-7731-0. 557 pages.
Set in England and the Burgundian Low Countries (approximately modern Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of northern France) in 1461–1480, Daughter of York tells part of the story of Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard III. Most of the main characters are historical. Margaret’s ladies-in-waiting are fictional, including her close confidante the Italian dwarf Fortunata, who is quite an important secondary character, and there’s a walk-on part for Kate Haute, heroine of the author’s previous novel A Rose for the Crown.
Since the deaths of her father and brother in the struggle between the House of York and the House of Lancaster for the English throne, known to history as the Wars of the Roses, Margaret of York has understood that family prestige comes before all else, however high its price. As a woman, she knows that her contribution to the power of the York family will be to make a political marriage. When the time comes, Margaret embarks on the glittering match her family has chosen for her, determined to do her duty to her family, her new husband, and her new country. But Margaret has a dangerous secret; she has fallen hopelessly in love with another man, the handsome and cultured Sir Anthony Woodville. Can Margaret keep her secret, and will she ever know happiness in love?
I admit the first few chapters of Daughter of York nearly put me off, as our tall, striking and intelligent heroine establishes her ‘relevance’ to modern readers by dreading the prospect of being “used as a pawn” in an arranged marriage, despising her maids in waiting as “simpering” girls, and ogling handsome heralds. Fortunately, these warning signals turned out to be largely false alarms, and during the rest of the book most of Margaret’s behaviour was more or less plausible for a medieval lady. Indeed, the defining characteristic of the novel turned out to be a plethora of historical detail. In the Question and Answer interview at the back of the book, the author says, “….if we had them, almost all the pages of my book would have a surprising number of footnotes,” and I can well believe it. Sometimes the sheer weight of research information got a little tedious for my taste, and I found myself skimming descriptions of Margaret’s costumes and lists of dishes served at feasts. But readers who want to know what the well-dressed duchess was wearing in 1470, the menu for a coronation banquet, or the method for making blue pigment for illuminated manuscripts, will love Daughter of York. Sometimes there was a wry little aside to leaven the mix, such as a comment about the unflattering effect of the fashionable ultra-short men’s coat on a middle-aged courtier of ample girth, or the tendency of a two-foot steeple hennin (those tall cone-shaped head-dresses worn by great ladies at the time) to poke people in the eye.
Margaret is the central character, and although the novel is narrated in third person almost everything is seen from Margaret’s point of view. Luckily she is a fairly sympathetic narrator, intelligent, sensible and interested in the world around her. The role of a great lady involved much more than looking decorative and doing tapestry. For a start, managing an aristocratic household of well over a hundred people, all with different ranks and responsibilities, was far from an easy job. A modern analogy might be the Managing Director of a five-star hotel, or, in Margaret’s case with well over a dozen ducal residences, a chain of five-star hotels. Watching Margaret establish her authority over her staff, using a mixture of charm, tact and – when all else fails – blackmail, demonstrates her evident talent for what would today be called personnel management. As her husband spends most of his time away at war, leaving Margaret to run his dukedom in his absence, her role also has large components of Ambassador and Prime Minister thrown in. I found Margaret’s political ability much more interesting than her rather tepid – and, it seemed to me, rather one-sided – romance with Anthony Woodville, and was disappointed that the novel ended in 1480. By finishing then it misses out the years in which Margaret was effectively ruler of Burgundy and made Henry Tudor’s life a misery by funding successive attempts to unseat him, leading him to call her “this Diabolicall Duchess”. Still, Perkin Warbeck appears in a cameo role, with sufficient detail of his identity and history to suggest that he may be going to be the central character in a sequel, so perhaps this part of Margaret’s life will be explored then.
I didn’t find the (fictional) romance between Margaret and Anthony Woodville at all convincing. The author is candid that the relationship is fictional, based on a visit by Margaret to Anthony’s estate in Kent on her way to Dover and on their shared love of books. I don’t have a problem with that – we don’t know that they didn’t have a romance, so it’s fair game to imagine one – but Anthony’s behaviour in the novel was hard to reconcile with a genuine love for Margaret. The author says in her Author’s Note, “…men have a hard time facing conflict in a romantic relationship, and I imagined he was no different,” which to me seems decidedly lame.
Among the secondary characters, it was good to meet William Caxton, famous for having introduced the printing press to England. In the novel he is a gruff, canny, competent merchant adventurer, on whom Margaret can rely when she needs discreet help with mildly nefarious activities. Margaret’s husband, Charles le Temeraire (Charles the Bold), whom I had previously encountered as the defeated adversary of a local French heroine called Joan the Hatchet, is scarcely developed beyond a self-important bully. No doubt this helps to justify Margaret’s romantic yearnings elsewhere, but I got no sense of how Charles had managed to build up Burgundy into a rich and powerful, if short-lived, military empire.
The novel is mainly written in modern English, with no expletives that I noticed. A lot of archaic words and phrases are used, and readers who aren’t experts in the terminology of the European Middle Ages will probably find it helpful to bookmark the glossary at the back of the book where most of them are explained. There’s a list of characters at the front of the book, with notes identifying which are fictional and which historical, and a helpful family tree showing the inter-relationships of the Houses of York and Lancaster. There’s also a map showing the locations mentioned in the novel, very helpful for following Margaret’s journeys around Burgundy. At the back of the book, an Author’s Note and an interview with the author in the form of a question-and-answer session help to separate historical fact from fiction.
Detailed description of life in fifteenth-century Burgundy as seen by Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy and sister of Edward IV and Richard III.