27 December, 2008

Christmas fun

Sharpe’s Plot

Fellow fans of Sharpe, especially in his Sean Bean incarnation, may enjoy this sneak preview of the latest Sharpe TV movie, discovered by intrepid Hollywood undercover reporter Nan Hawthorne.

The scene opens as Wellington, sitting in his tent at his desk, discusses an important message with his intelligence expert, Snidely Malevolent. "Your Grace," Malevolent says in a knowing way, "we must find a man who is expendable but has a chance at succeeding at this suicide mission."
Wellington raises one eyebrow. "Sharpe."
--Read the rest

Historical Christmas Presents

What would some famous historical figures have wanted to find in their Christmas stockings (if they had them)? Susan Higginbotham, Nan Hawthorne and Gabriele Campbell have been finding out. Some examples below – click the links to read the rest.

Susan Higginbotham

  • Edward I: Scotland.

  • Piers Gaveston: Just something handmade. No, really! Well . . . if you insist, jewels are always appropriate.

  • Isabella of France: My jewels back.

  • Hugh le Despenser the younger: Whatever someone else is getting.

  • Roger Mortimer: Hugh on a platter.

Nan Hawthorne

  • Ethelred the Unready - a day planner

  • Alfred the Great - an oven timer

  • Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians - for Bernard Cornwell to get me right in his novels*

  • Godiva of Coventry - super hold hair spray

  • Offa of Mercia - a really butch dyke

Gabriele Campbell

  • Caligula: Shiny new boots.

  • Agricola: Caledonia.

  • Eleanor of Aquitaine: Marriage counselling for my husband. It's not my fault.

  • Henry II: Family therapy for my wife and sons. It's not my fault.

  • William Wallace: The director of Braveheart.

*If Alfred is allowed two requests, I think he'd like this one as well

23 December, 2008

December recipe: Mince pies

Mince pies appear in Britain at Christmas like some prolific passage migrant. For eleven months of the year mince pies might as well not exist. In December, suddenly these little (and not so little) confections of pastry filled with sweetened spiced dried fruit appear on every table at every occasion. Coffee after dinner. Friday cakes at the office. Tea with a friend. Pub Christmas specials. Carol concerts. Cafes and cake shops, bakeries and restaurants. Supermarkets, boxes piled high by the pallet load. Hot, cold, with cream, with brandy butter, on their own, served as a dessert or nibbled with coffee.

There are as many variants as there are cooks. Shortcrust pastry, buttercrust, puff pastry, sweet flan pastry? Cherries in the mincemeat? Almonds? Citrus peel? Suet? About the one (reasonable) certainty is that the mincemeat won’t contain any meat. Mince pies originally contained minced meat and dried fruit, a popular combination in medieval cookery, but the meat had largely disappeared by the end of the nineteenth century, with only the shredded suet remaining as a vestigial reminder of the original content.

For a month no other sweetmeat is so ubiquitous, and then in early January the world goes back to work, the reduced-to-clear stickers go up on the supermarket displays, and the mince pie vanishes as completely as Santa and Rudolf.

I make mince pies from about the middle of December onwards, by which time the mincemeat made with apples from the garden tree in November will have had a chance to mature. But the batch I make on Christmas Eve, listening to the Radio 4 broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge, is always special for me. It’s at that point that I feel all the frenetic preparations are over and the festival itself is beginning.

Here’s my recipe.

Mince pies

6 oz (approx 150 g) self-raising flour
4.5 oz (approx 125 g) butter
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoons) icing sugar
1 egg yolk (use the white to make meringue)

Mincemeat of your choice, home-made or bought

Grease tartlet or patty tins.
Rub the butter into the flour and icing sugar.
Beat in the egg yolk and press the mixture into a ball of dough.
(In theory, at this point you are supposed to chill the pastry overnight. I find it is less prone to break if I roll it out and make the mince pies straight away).
Roll out the pastry on a floured work surface. I like thin pastry so I roll mine to about 1-2 mm thick; you can leave yours thicker if you like.
Cut circles big enough to make pastry cases lining the base and sides of your tartlet tins.
Spoon mincemeat into the pastry cases. Don’t overfill them or the mincemeat will boil out and make an unpleasant mess on the baking tray. The filling should be no more than level with the rim.
Re-roll the rest of the pastry and cut smaller pastry circles to make lids.
Damp the top edge of each pastry case with water and cover with a pastry lid, pressing the edges well down.
Brush the tops of the mince pies with milk, and sprinkle each with a little granulated sugar.
Snip two small holes in the top of each mince pie.
Bake in a hot oven, around 220 C, for 15-20 minutes until golden brown.
Let the mince pies cool for a minute or two in the tins to set the pastry, then lift them out with a palette knife or pie slice. Cool on a wire rack.
Store in an airtight tin, or can be frozen.

I find this quantity of pastry usually makes 20-24 mince pies. My tartlet tins are about 6 cm diameter. If you like thicker pastry, or if you have larger tartlet tins, it will make fewer. Try it out and see. Any leftover pastry will keep, uncooked and wrapped in cling film or foil, for a few days in the fridge, or can be frozen.

Wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, have a happy Christmas, and best wishes for the New Year!

12 December, 2008

The Blackstone Key, by Rose Melikan. Book review

Touchstone, 2008. ISBN 978-1-1465-6080-7. 435 pages.

The Blackstone Key is a light espionage mystery with a touch of gothic romance, set in England in 1795 during the war with Revolutionary France. All the characters are fictional.

Mary Finch is living in genteel poverty as a teacher at a minor school for young ladies when she receives a letter from her wealthy uncle inviting her to visit him at his home on the Suffolk coast. Mary jumps at the chance, but when she arrives she finds her uncle has died and the house is being used for smuggling – or something worse. England is at war with the Revolutionary government in France, and there are fears of an imminent French invasion. When Mary discovers coded documents in her uncle’s study, she finds herself drawn into a deadly web of ruthless spies. Was her uncle part of the plot? Why is the artillery officer Captain Holland, whom Mary met by chance on her journey, so eager to be helpful? Can Mary break the code to help the charming and handsome Paul Deprez track down the spies before they betray England’s most important secrets to the enemy? Mary has to choose who to trust, knowing that a wrong choice might threaten not only her own life but the security of her country.

The Blackstone Key features plenty of period detail. If you want to imagine what it was like to travel in the days of the mail coaches, watch the workings of social hierarchy among the minor gentry, or understand the intricacies of eighteenth-century inheritance law, this novel is for you. I was particularly interested in the portrayal of the City Police in Bow Street, recognisably the forerunners of a regular police service. The prose has a rather formal style with few modern phrases, which I guess is intended to achieve a period feel, though I felt it sounded a little stilted at times. The dialogue of the upper- and middle-class characters (most of the cast) felt reasonably plausible, though I did wonder whether an army officer from a gentry family would really have used quite so much bad language in the presence of a lady, and whether a nicely brought up young lady would not have been much more offended than Mary Finch apparently was. The lower-class characters were less convincing, and some of the thieves’ cant (“Say, mister”, or “I ain’t holding out on you, gov”) sounded to me more Sam Spade than 1795. I also admit to being surprised that the pistol was the clandestine weapon of choice among the spies, even being used for assassinations. I had the impression that the typical pistol of the Napoleonic period was big, cumbersome, noisy, slow to load, prone to misfire and not very accurate, so I was expecting the cloak-and-dagger agents to use, well, daggers. However, I’m not an expert on the late eighteenth century.

The main characters are mixed, with good and not-so-good qualities. Mary Finch is lively, brave, intelligent and sweet-natured, but she is also inexperienced, na├»ve and rather prone to let her imagination run away with her. Most of the story is told from Mary’s point of view, so she is the character we get to know best. Captain Holland is a professional with an important job, but he is insecure about his lack of educational polish and his awkward social position as the poor relation of a rich family. I’d have liked to see more of Holland’s point of view. The secondary characters, such as the inept parson, the interfering matriarch, the snobbish society ladies, the slow-witted magistrate and the talkative coach passengers, are drawn in almost as much detail as the main characters. Which is quite attractive in its way, but it does make it tricky to keep track of who is important and who is incidental.

The romantic sub-plot is attractively low-key. Mary attracts the interest of two contrasting men, the rough and ready artillery officer Captain Holland and the charming, urbane and wealthy Paul Deprez. Both attract her in their different ways and she cannot help comparing the two. Her feelings develop gradually over the course of the novel as she gets to know more about each man, which I always find more satisfying than a love-at-first-sight romance.

The espionage plot is interesting, if a bit slight. I spotted the villain and the hero immediately, but that might just have been luck, and there is enough bluff, double-bluff, agents and double-agents to keep the reader guessing about the exact details of the plot. There are a few turns that rely either on coincidence (Mary happening to be travelling in search of her long-lost uncle at just that time and place) or on the villains’ carelessness, but coincidence does happen in the real world.

I found the pace of the novel uneven, and this made it hard for me to get really engaged with the book or the characters. Not very much happens for the first 100 pages, as Mary journeys to Suffolk in the company of a cast of gossipy minor characters most of whom never reappear. Things briefly pick up with an incident of excitement, action and mystery – but then the novel goes back to chattering in drawing rooms for another 100+ pages. By the time I had plodded through lengthy details about Captain Holland’s romantic aspirations and equivocal social position, and the legal niceties of Mary’s inheritance and her introduction into polite local society, all in the company of yet another new cast of talkative and mostly incidental characters, I had completely lost track of the espionage plot and its dramatis personae. When the suggestion of spies and codes popped up again halfway through the novel I had to flick back to try to remind myself what might be going on, who might be involved and why it would even matter. The cosy drawing-room world is so wrapped up in its trivial concerns about who is going to marry whom and the correct frock to wear for a tea party that the espionage plot loses any sense of real menace. Only in about the last third of the novel does the mystery start to find its stride, and by then it’s getting rather squashed for space and is resolved in something of a rush.

I would have preferred more of the mystery and less of the mild social comedy, or at the very least closer intercutting between the two so that I didn’t lose sight of the mystery for 100 pages at a time. I think this disjointed plot is a major reason why I felt the book overall felt rather “flat”.

Mix of lightweight mystery, slightly gothic romance and mild social comedy in genteel eighteenth-century England.

05 December, 2008

Paths of Exile - coming in 2009

Paths of Exile will be published by Quaestor2000 Publishing in early 2009. Paperback and large print editions, available from Amazon and through bookshops.

More information will appear on my website, the publisher’s website, and here as it becomes available.

About the novel:
Northumbria, Britain, 605 AD. The Roman Empire in the West has faded into memory, replaced by a colourful mosaic of competing kingdoms. The changing times bring great opportunities - and great dangers.
Eadwine is the youngest son of the king of Deira, guardian of a neglected frontier and the faithful ally of his eldest brother and hero Eadric. His ambition is to be a worthy lord to the frontier district, a good husband to his betrothed, and a reliable second-in-command to his brother. All these hopes are swept away when Deira is invaded by its powerful and predatory neighbour Bernicia. Eadwine reaches the capital just ahead of the invaders, having fought a fierce rearguard action, only to find that Eadric is already dead, shamefully murdered by a unknown assassin.
Eadwine survives the subsequent disastrous defeat, and now finds himself on the run for his life. The fearsome King of Bernicia, Aethelferth, has sworn an oath to the gods to kill Eadwine as thanks for the victory, and no king will dare to defy Aethelferth by offering Eadwine refuge. Eadwine must evade Aethelferth's relentless pursuit, identify and take vengeance on his brother's murderer, and rescue his betrothed. Along the way, he will lose his heart to another woman and discover a shattering secret that challenges all the ideals he holds dear.

"Carla Nayland pulls the curtain back on the little known period of seventh century Britain to reveal the fascinating world of Eadwine. Filled with unforgettable characters and wonderful historical detail, Paths of Exile is historical fiction at its most intriguing."
--Michelle Moran, bestselling author of The Heretic Queen

“Paths of Exile” is an epic tale of battle, honour, loyalty and betrayal that is at once exquisitely entertaining and utterly convincing. Carla Nayland's prose is irresistible, luring the reader from the comforts of the 21st century into the harsh and often bloody reality of Saxon England. A triumphant debut that demands a sequel”
--Russell Whitfield, author of Gladiatrix

... an exciting, tautly-plotted tale that's action-packed thriller, murder mystery, tragedy and romance all rolled into one and set in an authentic landscape I can see and touch and feel. But it's much more than that, mainly because the author has peopled her story with flesh-and-blood-characters who are both convincingly of their own time and yet, with all their fears and hopes, not at all alien to us.
--Sarah Cuthbertson (full review here)

30 November, 2008

Sharpe’s Peril. TV/DVD review.

Shown on UK ITV as two episodes each of 90 minutes including advert breaks and credits. Total running time probably a little over 2.5 hours without breaks.

Set in India in 1818, Sharpe’s Peril is a TV movie very loosely based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels featuring Richard Sharpe, rifleman hero of the Napoleonic Wars, in India. Cornwell’s novels were set during Sharpe’s early career, before the Peninsular War, but Sean Bean would now be too old to play a young Sharpe so the TV movie is set after Waterloo.

Colonel Sharpe and Sergeant Patrick Harper are travelling through India on their way to Madras, when Sharpe is asked to escort a beautiful French blonde to the next hill station where she is to meet her fiance, Major Joubert. As a notorious bandit called Chitu is raiding in the area, Sharpe is glad to fall in with an East India Company supply convoy. He was hoping to leave the blonde with them and ride on alone, but when the convoy is attacked by bandits Sharpe is the only officer able to take effective command. When they reach the hillfort they find the garrison slaughtered and Major Joubert missing, along with the Company record books. Sharpe now has to shepherd the column through 300 miles of hostile territory, battling against bandit raids from without and treachery within. What nefarious business is going on and what has opium got to do with it? Is the seemingly heroic Company cavalry commander Colonel Dragomirov all he appears? What has happened to the French blonde’s fiance? Of course all is not what it seems, and Sharpe has ample opportunity to prove his heroism in a desperate journey and a still more desperate last stand.

So far, so classic Sharpe. Lots of action, a pretty woman, some dubious double-dealing to give the plot some unlikely twists, and impressive photography among India’s spectacular landscapes. Unfortunately, the film reminded me of nothing so much as Eric Morecambe’s piano technique, “I’m playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order!”.

It seemed to be a loosely connected series of exotic scenes strung on a gossamer-thin thread of plot. A snake pit. Bandit raids. A beautiful blonde with the sort of bosom one normally associates with Andrew Davies adaptations, who insists on riding off alone in bandit country and duly having to be rescued. Fight scenes. Senior officers who are incompetent and/or corrupt. A surly, mutinous and corrupt Sergeant. More fight scenes. A shiny young ensign who really didn’t deserve his fate. A scene in an Indian palace where the beautiful blonde is dressed up in scanty Indian costume (reminiscent of the banquet scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but without the comedy). Sharpe getting seriously wounded and having to be tended by the beautiful blonde, but apparently completely healed by the next fight scene. Nefarious wheeler-dealing by a posh officer. Did I mention the fight scenes?

Some events seemed to defy logic completely. Faced with a deep river to ford, Sharpe decides to turn all the baggage elephants and horses loose and cross it on foot. Um, wouldn’t it have been more sensible to ferry everybody across on the elephants and then abandon the animals once everyone was safely on the other side? (But that would have deprived the audience of Sharpe in a wet shirt and the beautiful blonde in a clinging wet dress.) Is it really likely that a French army officer would have been trusted with an East India Company hill station after England and France had been fighting each other across Europe for a decade? Why did the film have a beautiful Indian princess who apparently played no role whatsoever, not even as eye candy? And the ending was not so much a deus ex machina as a rabbit out of a hat.

I wonder if the film was edited down to a shorter running time in a hurry. If it had originally been intended for, say, three or three and a half hours and then had to be cut to fit the available slot, that could account for some of the cart-sized holes in the plot, and the apparently unemployed Indian princess if her storyline ended up on the cutting room floor.

Sean Bean was as moody and truculent a Sharpe as ever, and Patrick Harper provided a welcome note of humour. The other characters were rather flat in comparison. The beautiful blonde in particular would have qualified for a TSTL* award in a romance novel, going out for a ride on her own in hostile country having just been warned that there were bandits about. I hoped she was going to turn out to be a double agent, which would have been an interesting and rational explanation for her behaviour.

Now, action movies aren’t required to be realistic. They depend on a certain amount of larger-than-life Romance, in the older sense of the word. But turning a stream of unlikely events into a narrative that’s so much fun that you’re glued to it even though you know it’s pure hokum, is a rare and precious skill. The better James Bond films have it, as does Cornwell himself in (most of) his novels . I’m afraid Sharpe’s Peril isn’t in that league.

AA Gill in the Times noted that HarperCollins were credited as co-producers and wondered if the idea was to make you turn off the TV and pick up a book. I wouldn’t be quite that harsh, although if you’re new to Sharpe don’t judge the character or the books by this film. I’d categorise it as a pleasant and undemanding glossy action flick, designed to be watched for the fight scenes, the girl and the bit where the hero takes his shirt off.

*Too Stupid To Live

23 November, 2008

November recipe: Coffee and walnut cake

There should be plenty of nuts in the shops at this time of year, and if you were lucky enough to pick fresh walnuts back in September they should be nicely dried out by now. Coffee and walnuts seem to be two flavours made for each other. Here’s a recipe for an attractive sponge cake that’s luxurious without being too heavy, before we all turn to hefty fruit cakes in the run-up to Christmas.

Coffee and walnut cake

Sponge cake
4 oz (approx 120 g) butter
4 oz (approx 120 g) light brown sugar
2 eggs
4 oz (approx 120 g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) instant coffee, dissolved in 1-2 teaspoons of boiling water
2 oz (approx 50 g) walnuts, chopped

Filling and topping
3 oz (approx 80 g) icing sugar
1.5 oz (approx 40 g) butter, preferably unsalted
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) instant coffee, dissolved in 1-2 teaspoons of boiling water
Walnut halves to decorate

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy
Beat in the eggs
Stir in the flour, dissolved instant coffee and chopped walnuts, and mix well.
Divide between two greased and lined sandwich cake tins, about 7” (approx 20 cm) diameter. Spread the mixture evenly in each tin and level the surface.
Bake in a hot oven about 180 - 200 C for about 20 minutes until the sponge cakes are golden brown, springy when touched, and beginning to shrink away from the edges of the tins. If in doubt insert a thin skewer into the middle of the cake; if no cake mixture sticks to it when you pull the skewer out, the cake is done. (You don’t really need the skewer test for a sandwich cake because the cake is quite shallow, but it can be reassuring if you aren’t quite sure).
Turn the cakes out of the tins, remove the lining paper, and cool on a wire rack.

Sieve the icing sugar into a large bowl. (Yes, I’m afraid you really do have to do this. If you don’t, the icing will be full of little hard lumps of congealed icing sugar that you’ll spend ages trying to beat out, and you still won’t get rid of them all. Sieving is quicker in the long run – trust me on that).
Cream the icing sugar and butter together until smooth.
Beat in the dissolved instant coffee and mix well.
Spread half the mixture on one of the sandwich cakes. Put the other sandwich cake on top. Spread the rest of the icing on top, and decorate with walnut halves if liked.

Serve cut into slices. The cake will keep a week or so in an airtight tin if it gets the chance. You can freeze the sponge cakes before they are iced. I’ve never tried freezing the icing.

16 November, 2008

Blotmonath (November): the early English calendar

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 eleventh month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of November, was called Blotmonath, “blood month”.

Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

Blodmonath is “month of immolations”, for then the cattle which were to be slaughtered were consecrated to their gods. Good Jesu, thanks be to thee, who hast turned us away from these vanities and given us to offer to thee the sacrifice of praise.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

As a good Christian, Bede clearly disapproved of animal sacrifices to heathen gods. There is another famous reference to cattle sacrifice in Pope Gregory’s advice to Bishop Mellitus on how best to approach the conversion of the English to Christianity:

And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and 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, Ecclesiastical History, Book I Chapter 30

When the grass stops growing in the late autumn or early winter, the supply of food available for cattle falls dramatically. It is still possible to pasture a few animals outdoors, provided they are hardy enough to survive the winter weather, but the number will be limited because the vegetation that is already there has to last them until the new growth starts again next spring.

Keeping any larger number of cattle over winter requires the provision of winter fodder. This was traditionally hay, long grass cut in the lush days of summer and dried in the sun for winter storage. But hay is time-consuming to make, and in a wet summer it can be difficult (if not impossible) to dry it properly. The hay supply is also limited by the supply of grass available for cutting in the summer. All of this means the supply of food available for livestock during the winter would be a lot less than that available during the summer. Demand could be reduced to some extent if the cows went dry in the winter, as a cow needs less food when she is not producing milk. But even so, the number of cattle that could be kept in good health over winter would be limited.

Rather than let the surplus animals starve slowly to death, it would make sense to kill them while they were still in good condition, when some of the meat could be eaten fresh and the rest salted, smoked or dried to be eaten over winter. Hence an annual cattle slaughter in the late autumn would be required for sound agricultural reasons, and could provide a convenient opportunity to honour the gods (and have a big feast) at the same time. The god(s) might change, but the agricultural imperative stayed the same.

ReferencesBede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.

04 November, 2008

The Crimson Portrait, by Jody Shields. Book review

Back Bay Books, 2008. ISBN 978-0-316-06718-8. 296 pages

Disclaimer: Pages 151-182 were missing from my review copy. From having read the rest of the novel I don’t think these pages would have markedly altered my conclusions, but it’s always possible.

The Crimson Portrait is set in a military hospital for soldiers with facial injuries in England in 1915. Two of the characters, Dr Kazanjian and the American artist Anna Coleman, are historical figures. The other characters are fictional.

In spring 1915, Catherine, a rich young woman whose husband has been killed in World War I hands over her grand country estate for use as a military hospital. Lost in her grief for her husband, Catherine cannot believe he is really dead and becomes obsessed with the idea that he is trying to send her messages or that he is one of the patients whose bandaged faces she cannot see. She becomes fixated on a particular patient, Julian, who reminds her of her dead husband. When the artist Anna Coleman is commissioned to make masks for some of the patients who are disfigured beyond hope of repair, based on photographs taken before their injuries, Catherine seizes the opportunity to re-make Julian in the image of her lost husband.

The quotes on the back jacket call this novel “a top-drawer literary thriller”. Well, I agree that it’s literary. I cannot, however, say that I found it thrilling. It seems to be a novel that takes itself terribly seriously. The writing style is opaque, elliptical and full of portentous references to light, mirrors, broken glass, reflective pools of water and the like. A sense of hopelessness and despair pervades everything and everyone. This may well be an accurate reflection of the subject matter – a hospital trying to pioneer plastic surgery for men with appalling injuries is never going to be a barrel of laughs, though I might have expected rather more gallows humour – but it doesn’t exactly make for a light or even an absorbing read. Don’t pick this book if you’re looking for a diversion after a hard day at work.

The most interesting aspect of the novel for me was the background information on the techniques of early plastic surgery. Facial injuries are particularly difficult to repair, because (unlike the rest of the body) some of the muscles of the face are anchored only to each other, not to the bones. Severe facial trauma is no doubt as old as warfare, and could be repaired in some circumstances; for example, one of the skulls excavated from the mass grave at the site of the battle of Towton (1461) had a severe blade wound to his left lower jaw from some earlier violent encounter which, remarkably, had healed by the time of his death (scroll down to the photo at the bottom of the page in the link). However, the rebuilding of damaged muscle and skin is a comparatively recent technique that could only really be developed after aseptic surgery and efficient anaesthesia had been invented. I had an idea that a good deal of modern plastic surgery had been pioneered in the Second World War when burns and blast injuries were horribly common among aircrew, but evidently it has roots reaching back at least to the First World War. Techniques such as skin grafting and various ingenious devices for supporting damaged tissues are described in the novel in some detail, and made me want to go and find a book on the history of facial surgery to learn more.

The novel doesn’t have much in the way of a plot (or perhaps it was too subtle for me), and the portrayal of the characters seemed to be me to be shallow and lacking in emotional impact. Despite detailed descriptions of various characters’ innermost thoughts, feelings and philosophies, I never felt I really understood them as people. I took a particular dislike to Catherine, who seems to be so obsessed with her own misery that she will use and deceive other people in her attempt to get some of her old life back. I guess that’s the point, as it shows how someone can be completely unhinged by grief, but as the novel doesn’t show what Catherine was like before her husband died (except a slight hint of a none-too-bright debutante), she simply came over to me as self-centred. The surgeon Dr McCleary is a sympathetic and dedicated doctor overwhelmed by the enormity of his task, and the skilled anaesthetist Brownlow takes refuge from the strain in ether. Dr Kazanjian, a pioneering dental surgeon with a talent for improvisation, and the artist Anna Coleman are the most positive characters, able to find satisfaction in the practising of their craft. One aspect that I found especially disappointing was the absence of the patients’ point of view. What was it like for them? How did they bear the unbearable? What did Julian think of Catherine and her attentions? Overall, the novel seemed to me to be shallow to the point of dullness, which is a great pity given its potentially dramatic subject matter.

Disappointing meander through the misery of bereavement and the hideous waste of war, with some interesting material on the early development of plastic surgery.

Has anyone else read it?

31 October, 2008

October recipe: Onion soup

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.

Onion soup

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.

28 October, 2008

Winterfilleth (October): the early English calendar

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

The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani. Book review

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

Human sacrifice in Anglo-Saxon England: what rite might have been used?

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.

Sutton Hoo

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.

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
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

Hips and haws

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

Daughter of York, by Anne Easter Smith. Book review.

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.

29 September, 2008

September recipe: Caramel apple tart

This is a variation on the classic French dessert Tarte Tatin, but I hesitate to call it that in case it’s a protected regional name (I’d rather not be escorted to the border next time I go cycling in Normandy). It’s a good way to use up windfall dessert apples, if you happen to have an apple tree or know someone who does.

Don’t be put off by the terrifying prospect of having to turn the tart out of its baking tin. If you think about it, it’s actually the easiest kind of tart to turn out because the pastry is on the top when it's cooked and therefore it’s not going to stick to the tin and break. The worst that can happen is that the one or two of the apples stick, in which case you just scrape them out and put them back in their approximate place on top of the tart. No-one will ever know, especially once the tart is covered in caramel sauce. Just don’t let anyone watch you.

Caramel apple tart

Serves 4–6.

3 oz (approx 75 g) plain flour
3/4 oz (approx 20 g) butter
3/4 oz (approx 20 g) lard

Approximately 1 lb (approx 450 g) eating apples
3 oz (approx 75 g) butter
2 oz (approx 50 g) light brown soft sugar
1 oz (approx 25 g) dark muscovado sugar
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) honey

Grease a 7” (approx 18 cm) diameter sandwich tin.
Rub the butter and lard into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Mix with a small amount of water until it forms a dough.
(Or you can use ready-made shortcrust pastry if you prefer).
Roll out to a circle approximately 1” (approx 2.5 cm) bigger in diameter than the sandwich tin.

Cut the apples into segments and remove the cores (and any damaged parts if using windfalls), but don’t peel them.
Heat the butter, sugar and honey gently in a medium saucepan until the butter has melted and the sugar dissolved.
Add the apple segments and cook for two or three minutes.
Remove from the heat. Fish the apple segments out, leaving most of the sauce in the pan, and arrange them skin side down in the sandwich tin.
Put the pastry on top of the apples, and tuck the edges down between the apples and the sides of the tin,
Bake in a moderately hot oven at about 180 C for about 25–30 minutes until the pastry is set and golden.
Remove from the oven, and loosen the pastry all round the edges of the tin using a pie slice or a blunt table knife. Leave to cool in the tin for 5–10 minutes.
Loosen the pastry all round the edges again.
Place a large plate (bigger than the sandwich tin) on top of the tin. Hold the plate and tin together and invert them so that the plate is underneath and the tin is on top. Lift the tin gently, and the apple tart will fall out of the tin onto the plate with the pastry on the bottom and the apples on the top. (Honest, it will). If it’s inclined to stick, give the tin a gentle tap. If any of the apple segments have stuck to the tin, scrape them out and put them in their approximate places on top of the pastry.
Reheat the caramel sauce and pour over the tart to serve.
Serve with cream, whipped cream, natural yoghurt or ice cream.

The tart can be eaten warm or cold, but the sauce is always best if reheated. It will keep for two or three days at room temperature.

I expect to get six slices out of this recipe, but it depends how big a slice you like.

23 September, 2008

Halegmonath (September): the early English calendar

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 ninth month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of September, was called Halegmonath, “holy month”.

Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

Halegmonath means “month of sacred rites”.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

He doesn’t elaborate, which is a shame. So we do not know why the month was called holy, nor what rites were performed or what deities honoured. I think a few inferences can be made, though (as ever) other interpretations are possible.

In most of temperate Europe, the main cereal crops are harvested during August and September and harvest is completed some time during September, depending on the weather and the crop (for example, barley is harvested earlier than wheat in regions where both are grown). Cereal crops, such as rye, oats, barley and the various types of wheat, were the staple food before potatoes were introduced from the New World. More than any other single crop, the cereal harvest determined whether the ensuing winter would be a hungry one. The month in which the cereal harvest was safely gathered in and the future of the community secured for another year, could justifiably be considered a holy month.

What deity might have been honoured in this holy month? Tacitus says of the Angles in continental Germany in the first century AD:

There follow in order the Reudignians, and Aviones, and Angles, and Varinians, and Eudoses, and Suardones and Nuithones; all defended by rivers or forests. Nor in one of these nations does aught remarkable occur, only that they universally join in the worship of Herthum; that is to say, the Mother Earth. Her they believe to interpose in the affairs of man, and to visit countries. In an island of the ocean stands the wood Castum: in it is a chariot dedicated to the Goddess, covered over with a curtain, and permitted to be touched by none but the Priest. Whenever the Goddess enters this her holy vehicle, he perceives her; and with profound veneration attends the motion of the chariot, which is always drawn by yoked cows. Then it is that days of rejoicing always ensue, and in all places whatsoever which she descends to honour with a visit and her company, feasts and recreation abound.
--Tacitus, Germania

The goddess’ name is variously rendered as Nerthus, Ertha or Herthum depending on the translation. The original Latin is, “Nec quicquam notabile in singulis, nisi quod in commune Nerthum, id est Terram matrem”, so I’ll use the form Nerthus.

A Mother Earth goddess would seem to be a reasonably likely candidate for a deity to be honoured in a month that celebrated the grain harvest.

Kathleen Herbert quotes from an account written by a German visitor to southern England in September 1598:

By lucky chance we fell in with the country-folk celebrating their harvest-home. The last sheaf had been crowned with flowers and they had attached it to a magnificently robed image, which perhaps they meant to represent Ceres. They carried her hither and thither with much noise; men and women were sitting together on the waggon, men-servants and maid-servants shouting through the streets until they came to the barn.
--Quoted in Herbert (1994)

Ceres was the Roman goddess of agriculture, from whose name we get the modern English word “cereal”.

So 1500 years after Tacitus described Nerthus riding in a ceremonial vehicle amid great rejoicing, we have an account of the English celebrating the corn harvest in September by carrying a female image in a waggon, also amid noisy rejoicing. It should be noted (and should go without saying) that the 1598 account doesn’t prove an uninterrupted survival of ritual, much less religion, for 1500 years. For all the German visitors (and we) knew, the English villagers might have invented their celebration the year before based on a fragment of Roman myth that someone had seen or heard of and thought would make a good excuse for a party. Nevertheless, it may not be too far removed from the “sacred rites” of the early English “holy month”.

Tacitus, Germania. Full-text translation available online.
Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.
Herbert, Kathleen. Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994. ISBN 1-898281-04-1.

20 September, 2008

Suffolk saunter

...the green and gold of this most unspoilt and unprettified of counties....
--PD James, Unnatural Causes

A somewhat overly romanticised description, but I can see what she was getting at. The tower in the distance belongs to Stoke-by-Nayland church.

Stoke-by-Nayland church tower.

Splendid half-timbered house opposite the church.

The Anchor Inn, Nayland. This is a lovely pub serving excellent food. Not only does it do its own cooking, it owns the surrounding farm estate and raises its own free-range chickens, beef, pork and lamb and grows its own fruit and vegetables. It also has its own smokehouse, where it seems to smoke anything that runs, flies or swims, and has a very pretty setting on the river Stour. Highly recommended if you're ever in the Constable Country area.

River bridge at the Anchor Inn's garden.

Butterfly sunning itself on a blackberry bush. Looking at the invaluable British Butterflies website, I think it's a comma.

Other wildlife highlights that weren't caught on camera included a kestrel perched on the edge of a straw bale surveying the surrounding stubble for displaced field voles, and the reckless grey squirrel that shot across the road six inches in front of my front wheel and three inches in front of my companion's. Tsk, don't squirrels belong to the road safety Tufty Club any more?

16 September, 2008

White Rose Rebel, by Janet Paisley. Book review

Edition reviewed, Penguin, 2008, ISBN 978-0-141-02679-4. 390 pages.

White Rose Rebel is set in the Highlands of Scotland in 1744-1746, at the time of the second Jacobite* Rising, and tells the story of ‘Colonel’ Anne Farquharson, Lady McIntosh, who raised her husband’s clansmen to fight for Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie). The main characters are all historical figures. I haven’t been able to figure out whether Anne’s half-sister Elizabeth is fictional or a historical character whose career has been modified.

Anne Farquharson, daughter of a chief of the Clan Chattan federation, has been a staunch Jacobite all her life and has no time for the Union with England or the government in London. When she marries the disturbing and devastatingly attractive Aeneas McIntosh, chief of a neighbouring clan and head of the Chattan federation, politics is the last thing on Anne’s mind. But when Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives in Scotland, Anne is furious that Aeneas refuses to raise his clan to the Jacobite cause, and soon she and her husband find themselves on opposite sides of a bitter war. Torn between her husband and her lover, the handsome warrior Alexander MacGillivray, Anne faces peril and heartbreak as the Jacobite rising sweeps to its bloodstained climax at Culloden.

White Rose Rebel is a fast, easy read with plenty of exciting action. Even the misunderstandings between husband and wife are as likely to occur on the battlefield as in the bedchamber. The battle scenes are vivid and bloody, giving a clear picture of how it might have been to fight with musket, bayonet and broadsword on the Highland moors. Sometimes less is more; one memorable scene in which a horse balks at crossing a river running red with the blood from Culloden was (for me) more chillingly evocative of the scale of the slaughter than the full-on description of carnage that follows a few pages later.

The characters are boldly drawn and some of the secondary characters, such as the hard-drinking Dowager Lady McIntosh and the decorative but useless Bonnie Prince Charlie, are at least as memorable as the leads. Anne is the central character, and most of the story is told from her point of view. Anne is clearly intended to be feisty and independent, but I’m afraid she struck me as wilful and egotistical. She attributes her husband’s actions to a desire to anger her, without even trying to understand his real reasons, and is inclined to act first and think later, even if she risks other people’s lives as well as her own. This might reflect her youth; most of the story takes place when Anne is aged a year either side of twenty. Her lover MacGillivray is a classic warrior hero, as brave and handsome as Anne herself, and also not overly given to thinking. Anne’s self-centred half-sister Elizabeth is an interesting character, and her desire for MacGillivray creates a pair of interlocking love triangles that drive some of the key plot twists. I found Aeneas the most interesting of the leads, perhaps because he is some years older than the others. Aeneas does not lack for courage, but he sees further than Anne and MacGillivray and has a better grasp of political and military reality. He understands that a successful war needs more than patriotic fervour – and that an unsuccessful one can be an unmitigated disaster for the losing side. However, I found the romance between Anne and Aeneas disappointing, perhaps because it seems to be founded mainly on lust. They can’t keep their hands off each other even when they are on opposite sides of a war (and there’s no shortage of explicit bedroom scenes to prove it), but they don’t seem to know or understand one another very well on other levels.

The novel makes a point of the culture clash between England / Lowland Scotland and the clan-based, almost tribal, society of Highland Scotland. Culture clash there undoubtedly was, but I’m not altogether convinced that pre-Culloden Highland Scotland was such a paradise of women’s rights and free love as depicted in the novel. We are told that Highland women decide when and whether the clansmen will fight, and that a Highland woman can expect to have as many affairs as she likes with any man she likes, quite openly and without any condemnation, both before and after marriage. Were Highland chieftains really as much under the thumb of their women as this? I’d be interested in the evidence supporting this social structure, and was disappointed to find that it isn’t discussed in the Author’s Note. But then, this is also a Highland Scotland with nary a mention of the midge; I could understand the hardy Highlanders being indifferent to this characteristic species of Highland wildlife, but surely the English characters sweating through a Highland glen on a hot August day would have had something to say about midges?

White Rose Rebel wears its Jacobite heart on its sleeve. There’s never any doubt which side the reader is supposed to support. The pro-Jacobite Highlanders are brave, joyous, tolerant and honourable. The first Englishman we meet is a cowardly bully who makes his wife walk on a hot day and refuses to allow her a drink of water, but who backs down when confronted by three women armed with knives and a pitchfork. The English high command are incompetent and/or brutal psychopaths, and the anti-Jacobite Scots feature a slimy lawyer and a homophobic churchman (and one decent man, to be fair). If the Jacobites had their share of creeps and thugs, we don’t meet any.

The novel is mainly written in modern English, with a peppering of Gaelic, Scots and French phrases in the dialogue. I’m not quite sure whether these indicate the language the characters are speaking, or whether the characters are speaking English and inserting occasional phrases of another language. Either way, the Gaelic and Scots phrases are translated in a helpful glossary at the back of the book (you’re on your own with the French), though the meaning is usually reasonably clear from the context.

There’s no map, so readers who want to trace the campaigns across Scotland may find it useful to have an atlas handy. It’s worth noting that Moy Hall in the novel refers to the Moy on the modern A9 south of Inverness, not the Moy near Loch Laggan in the Central Highlands (which puzzled me for a good half of the story, as I’m familiar with the Loch Laggan Moy and had trouble understanding the geography of the novel until I found the Inverness Moy on a road map).

Entertaining swashbuckler for readers who like their heroines feisty, their heroes handsome and sardonic, their bedroom scenes plentiful, their battle scenes gory and their politics clear-cut.

(Edited to correct the dates and add page count).

*James Stuart (James II of England and James VII of Scotland) was exiled in 1688 when his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange were invited by Parliament to take over the throne. Supporters of the exiled James, his son James Stuart and his grandson Charles Edward Stuart (aka ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) were called ‘Jacobites’, from the Latin for James ‘Jacobus’.

30 August, 2008

August recipe: Stir-fried lamb with courgettes and peppers

August is the season for plump Mediterranean vegetables - courgettes*, peppers, aubergines, tomatoes and their like. I am a great fan of courgettes, but if they have a fault it’s that the plants never seem to know when to stop. So I'm always on the lookout for ways to use courgettes, preferably in some quantity. They stir-fry well, being quick to cook and ready to take up flavourings like garlic and soy sauce. I probably cook some variant of a courgette stir-fry about once a week in season.

Here’s a good basic recipe that’s both easy and quick. It's one of my standbys to cook after a long day at work, because once the ingredients are chopped dinner can be on the table in minutes. You can vary the ingredients according to taste and availability, e.g. it works well with pork or flash-fry beef steak instead of lamb. I happen to grow yellow courgettes, but it works just as well with the green kind.

Stir-fried lamb with courgettes* and peppers

Serves 2

7 oz (approx 200 g) leg of lamb. Leftover cold roast is ideal.
1 lb (approx 450 g) courgettes
Red pepper
Half a small onion, or 2-3 large salad onions
4 oz (approx 100 g) mushrooms
1 piece root ginger, approx 1” cube (approx 2.5. cm cube)
1 large clove garlic
2 Tblsp (2 x 15 ml spoon) dark soy sauce
2 Tblsp (2 x 15 ml spoon) dry sherry or rice wine

Cut the meat into thin slices.
Trim the ends off the courgettes and cut into slices if small, or into matchsticks if large.
Remove the seeds from the red pepper and cut into strips.
Peel and slice the mushrooms.
Peel and chop the onion, or slice the salad onions into rings.
Peel the root ginger and shred into fine strips.
Heat approx 1 Tblsp cooking oil in a wok or large frying pan.
Add the onion and ginger and stir-fry approx 1 minute.
Add the chopped lamb and stir-fry another minute.
Add the courgettes, pepper and mushrooms. Crush the garlic and stir in. Stir-fry another 2 minutes until the meat is cooked and the vegetables soft and starting to colour.
Stir in the soy sauce and sherry. Stir well to mix. Remove from the heat and serve immediately with rice or noodles.

*Called zucchini in North America and Australia

26 August, 2008

Weodmonath (August): the early English calendar

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 eighth month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of August, was called Weodmonath, meaning “weed month”.

Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

Weodmonath means “month of tares” for they are very plentiful then.

--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

Anyone who has ever managed a garden knows that weeds are plentiful at more times than just August! Why pick on August as the weed month? It might be just a convenient name. The month has to be called something and ‘weed month’ might have been considered as good a name as any.

However, August is the time when the main cereal crops of temperate Europe – barley, rye, wheat, oats – are fully grown and ripening. The proportion of weeds in the cereal fields would be obvious by August. Perhaps it was a good indicator of (a) how difficult it was going to be separate the cereal from the weeds at harvest and threshing time and (b) the likely cereal yield; the higher the proportion of weeds in the cereal fields, the lower the yield of cereal. Maybe August was the weed month because it was then that you could judge how difficult the harvest was going to be?

Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.

24 August, 2008

Brilliante blogs award

Gabriele at The Lost Fort kindly nominated me for this sparkly blog award. Thank you, Gabriele. I'm not quite clear what the sparkly object actually is: Jonathan Jarrett, who was also on Gabriele's list (and was also kind enough to include me in his own list), calls it a tinfoil hat. I think it looks like a diamond on some sort of stand, not unlike the diamond that was the target of that Pink-Panther-style attempted raid on the Millenium Dome. Any other ideas, anyone?

The usual caveats and disclaimers apply: all the blogs and websites listed in the sidebar, plus a good few that I visit but haven't got around to adding yet, are worthy recipients, but it would be a long post to list all of them. So here, in no particular order, are ten to check out, if you aren't already familiar with them:

Feel free to play along!