28 March, 2008

Excellent Blogs

Gabriele kindly awarded me an Excellent Blog Award. Thank you, Gabriele. A condition of the award is that I have to name 10 Excellent Blogs of my own. Hard call! But here are ten that I read regularly:

For more, see the links in the sidebar. Honourable mention (because it has only just started) for Nan Hawthorne's latest venture.

I shall be offline for a while now, so the next post on this blog will be on or around Monday 7 April. See you all then.

25 March, 2008

The Merovingian coins from Sutton Hoo

Dating the coins

The dating of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and hence the likely identity of its occupant (more on the possible candidates in a future post), turns on the coins found in the burial (picture on the British Museum website here). The coins were in a magnificent purse carried on a belt, and consisted of thirty-seven gold tremisses from Merovingian Gaul, three blank gold coins, and two gold ingots.

Dating Merovingian coins is non-trivial, as the coins do not always carry the name of a ruler or of an identifiable mint. Of the 37 Sutton Hoo coins, 32 give the name of a mint on one side and sometimes the name of a moneyer on the other, with no ruler identified. Only five name specific rulers:
• Theudebert II (Frankish King, 595-612) – 1 coin, no mint named
• Justin II (Byzantine emperor, 565-578) – 1 coin, minted in Provence
• Maurice Tiberius (Byzantine emperor, 582-602) – 3 coins, minted at three different mints in Provence

In 1960 the French coin expert Lafaurie identified the latest date of the coin group as AD 625. More recent analysis of the gold content of the coins (which progressively declined over time as Frankish mints recycled the metal), has indicated that the coins could all have been made by AD 613 (Carver 1998). Fortunately, both these dates are reasonably consistent and place the earliest possible date for the burial in the early decades of the seventh century (it could of course be later, as the coins could have been in circulation for a while before being buried).

What did the coins represent?

No two of the coins come from the same mint. At first sight this looks remarkable, and it has been used to suggest that the coins were selected for some deliberate and specific reason, perhaps representing a diplomatic or symbolic payment of some kind. The historian Norman Scarfe suggested that they may have been the ‘blood money’ offered by Aethelferth of Northumbria in his attempt to bribe Raedwald to murder Eadwine (Edwin) of Northumbria in 617 (Carver 1998) – although why Aethelferth should have gone to the trouble of assembling his bribe from 37 different mints is not clear to me.

Another possibility is that the coin collection indicates some political relationship between the kingdoms of East Anglia and Merovingian Gaul, perhaps payment of tribute or a payment made to seal some diplomatic bargain. Martin Carver has suggested that they represent a form of tribute, with each major Merovingian mint sending a coin in recognition of the dead man’s achievements (Carver 1998). In this context it may be significant that Sigeberht, who was king of the East Angles in around 630-635, had spent time in Merovingian Gaul as a political exile in his youth (Bede, Book II Ch. 15). Our knowledge of the political history of the time is so sketchy that an alliance between Merovingian Gaul and East Anglia could easily have gone unrecorded.

It has been suggested that the three blanks were added to round up the 37 coins to a total of 40, representing payment for 40 oarsmen, and the two ingots represented payment for a steersman. This is an ingenious and attractive explanation, and there is nothing to rule it out, although it is by no means certain that the ship would have had 40 oarsmen (Carver 1998).

However, the coin collection may not be as special as it first appears. Thirteen of the coins either have no mint name or an unidentifiable one, leaving only 24 from the known Merovingian mints. According to Alan Stahl, there were so many different Merovingian mints in operation in the seventh century that the Sutton Hoo coins represent only a small fraction of the known mints. Stahl estimates that a random collection of 37 coins would have about a 50% chance of containing two coins from the same mint. In which case, this suggests that the Sutton Hoo coins need not represent a conscious attempt to select coins from different mints; it is as likely to have arisen as a random collection of 37 coins that happened to be in circulation.

Alan Stahl also points out that most coins in England in the early seventh century came from Merovingian Gaul, and that the main metal for currency north of the Mediterranean was gold. So the fact that the Sutton Hoo coins were Merovingian gold coins does not imply any special relationship between East Anglia and Merovingian Gaul. Most if not all of the coins available in England at the time would have been Merovingian and made of gold.

The presence of the blanks and the ingots need have no special significance either. Other coin hoards found outside Merovingian Gaul (at Nietap, Crondall and Dronrijp) have contained coin blanks and/or ingots along with coins, suggesting that commerce outside the Merovingian kingdom could use gold bullion alongside coins (Stahl 1992). This reminds me of the Norse system of using silver bullion (hacksilver) by weight for trade in later centuries; perhaps this was a long tradition. The combined weight of the coins, blanks and ingots is 61.11 g, and Stahl argues that this represents 48 tremisses by weight (Stahl 1992). There may be a symbolic significance to the number, or it may just be a convenient amount for commerce.

Gipeswic (modern Ipswich) was a major trading centre in the later seventh century and could have been an important source of wealth for the East Anglian kings. Perhaps it was founded by the Sutton Hoo Man, and the coins in his purse recognised the importance of trade to his kingdom? (“A nation of shopkeepers” indeed!).

As ever, many explanations are possible and you can take your choice.


Stahl, AM. The nature of the Sutton Hoo coin parcel. In: Kendall CB, Wells PS (Eds). Voyage to the other world; the legacy of Sutton Hoo. University of Minnesota Press, 1992, ISBN: 0816620245.

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

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X

24 March, 2008

Snowy Easter Sunday

According to the Met Office, it's statistically more likely to snow at Easter than at Christmas in Britain, and this year that's exactly what happened. After a warm February bringing the flowers out early, we got freezing winds and snow in late March. Hretha was definitely a goddess of winter this year.

Snow-covered stile and footpath

Weeping willow. The golden colour on the branches is the spring shoots appearing.

Snowy footpath in the woods. Just look at the bush leaning over the stile and waiting to drop its load down your neck as you brush past.

Brantham church and churchyard.

Snow-laden daffodils at the church

22 March, 2008

March recipe: Apricot and almond cake

Dried apricots and ground almonds are available all the year round, thanks to international transport, so this cake can be made at any time of year. March is as good a time as any, and it seems to suit the brighter days of spring.

Apricot and almond cake

4 oz (approx 100 g) butter
4 oz (approx 100 g) sugar. I use golden caster sugar or light brown soft sugar
2 eggs
Juice of half a lemon
1.5 oz (approx 30 g) ground almonds
2 oz (approx 50 g) plain flour
2 oz (approx 50 g) dried apricots

Chop the dried apricots into pieces the size you would like to find in your cake. I aim for pieces about the size of a raisin.
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Beat the eggs and stir into the creamed mixture.
Stir in the almonds and lemon juice.
Stir in the flour and apricots and mix thoroughly.
Spread in a greased shallow baking tin, about 7” (approx 18 cm) square, and level the top.
Bake in a moderate oven, about 170 C, for about 30 minutes. It’s done when the sponge springs back if pressed lightly with a finger, and has shrunk slightly away from the edges of the tin.
Cut into pieces, lift the pieces out of the tin and cool on a wire rack. I usually cut 12 pieces.
Keeps about a week in an airtight tin, or can be frozen.

17 March, 2008

Gladiatrix, by Russell Whitfield. Book review.

Myrmidon Books, ISBN 978-1-905802-09-8. Edition reviewed: uncorrected advance review copy.

Set in Roman Asia Minor towards the end of the first century AD, Gladiatrix tells the story of Lysandra, a Spartan priestess of Athene who finds herself captured and enslaved as a gladiatrix (female gladiator) in the Roman arena.

Two characters are based on the two gladiatrices commemorated on a memorial stone discovered in Halicarnassus (in modern south-west Turkey, map here) in the nineteenth century. Nothing is known of the two women depicted on the stone except their stage names – Amazona and Achillia – and the fact that they both survived and retired from the games. Gladiatrix imagines what their lives might have been like, and what extraordinary events might have led to their being honoured with this unique monument. You could say these two are archaeological characters, rather like the character ‘Julia’ in the novel of the same name who was based on a Roman burial discovered in London. All the other main characters are fictional. Two historical figures, the Roman governor of Asia, Julius Sextus Frontinus, and an up-and-coming senator called Trajanus (better known to history as Emperor Trajan) play secondary roles.

As the sole survivor or a shipwreck, Lysandra is captured by the servants of Lucius Balbus, owner of a ludus (school) for gladiatrices. Roman law means that Lysandra is now his property, like any other item salvaged from a shipwreck. Trained from childhood in the Spartan agoge, Lysandra is already expert with weapons and military tactics, and Balbus cannot believe his luck when she despatches her first arena opponent with consummate ease. But Lysandra’s Spartan pride not only attracts powerful enemies in the ludus, it also threatens to destroy her ability to adapt to her new circumstances. The love she finds in her new life will bring her joy – but it will also force her to face her greatest challenge.

Right from the first scene, when we meet Lysandra fighting for her life in the arena without knowing who she is or how she came to be there, Gladiatrix is packed with action. The numerous blow-by-blow fight sequences are detailed, graphic and cinematic, transporting the reader to the hot sands of the Roman arena in all its drama and brutality. Readers who like Bernard Cornwell and Simon Scarrow will find much to enjoy in Gladiatrix. Nor is the action confined to the arena – the tensions that develop between the characters add plenty of conflict to keep the plot barrelling along.

The closed world of the ludus is beautifully realised. Not only does the novel recreate the life and routine of a gladiator training school in loving detail, it also shows how the claustrophobic environment and the ever-present risk of death generate powerful emotional undercurrents. Professional rivalries, nationalistic hatreds, personal attractions and enmities are all writ large. For all her Spartan coolness, Lysandra finds herself inexorably drawn into a passionate whirlwind of love, jealousy, tragedy and revenge.

Lysandra is an intriguing central character. She frequently reflects on the superiority of her own intelligence, education and upbringing, and makes no secret of the fact that she considers everyone else her inferior. Several of the characters comment that the harsh upbringing of the Spartan agoge makes people hard, cold and lacking in imagination. Yet Lysandra is kind to a downtrodden slave girl, and her assumption of superiority is so sincere that it rather grows on you. It becomes endearing in a way, especially when the cannier characters such as Balbus and the priest Telemachus neatly outmanoeuvre her even as she is congratulating herself on her astuteness. Her physical prowess is extraordinary. When we first meet her, she is capable of decapitating an opponent with a single blow, and she very quickly becomes the leader of a group of gladiatrices on the strength of her martial ability. Not her interpersonal skills! Lysandra’s skill and courage earn her respect, but her weakness is her complete inability to see other people’s point of view, and that, combined with her startling tactlessness and her aloof pride bordering on arrogance, earns her some implacable enemies. Given that she manages to antagonise even the kindly trainer Catuvolcos, it isn’t hard to understand why the sadistic Nastasen and the proud senior gladiatrix Sorina take such a bitter dislike to her.

The secondary characters are drawn as distinct individuals with their own hopes and fears. Shrewd Lucius Balbus has to strike a careful balance between pleasing his rich political patrons and turning a profit. The sympathetic Catuvolcos dreams of buying his freedom and settling down with his girl. The barbarian chieftain Sorina burns to gain her freedom in the arena and take vengeance on the Romans who captured her in battle, and the worldly priest Telemachus is all too aware of the need for donations to maintain his impoverished temple. Lysandra’s fellow trainees are distinct individuals from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and all walks of life. The no-nonsense German warrior Hildreth, the raunchy Greek island girl-who-never-says-no Penelope (an inspired choice of name if ever there was one) and the gentle Athenian housewife Danae are drawn together by the training and the risk of death they all share.

The book is written in straightforward modern English. Unfamiliar classical terms such as ludus, lanista and the numerous arena fighting styles are explained at first use, and can usually be worked out from context. Occasional modern expletives, explicit sex scenes and a brutal rape scene mean that Gladiatrix isn’t a novel for the easily offended, but the subject matter and the opening chapter should make this obvious in any case.

A useful author’s note sets out the inspiration for the story and the boundaries between fact and fiction, and more information can be found on the author’s website and the various sites linked from it. The intriguing Epilogue hints at a connection with Rome’s troubles in Dacia, leaving the way open for a potential sequel – which I will be looking forward to.

Action-packed adventure full of love, hate and the thrills and spills of the arena.

14 March, 2008

A host of golden daffodils

I WANDER'D lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretch'd in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee:—
A poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company!
I gazed, and gazed, but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

--William Wordsworth

Okay, so these daffodils are growing alongside a village lane rather than on the romantic shore of Ullswater, and I doubt there are ten thousand of them, but they look none the less cheerful for that. Hooray for spring flowers.

Paths of Exile reviewed

Sarah Cuthbertson of the HNS has some nice things to say about Paths of Exile in a review posted on her blog.

Other reviews, including two by novelists Michelle Moran and Russell Whitfield can be found here.

I am so pleased that people are enjoying reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

11 March, 2008

Hrethmonath (March): 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. They recognised two seasons, summer, when the days were longer than the nights, and winter, when the nights were longer than the days. The seasons were divided by the spring and autumn equinoxes, the points in each year when the night and day are of exactly equal length. (See my earlier post for a summary of the early English calendar.)

Each cycle of the moon, probably from full moon to full moon, was a month. The year began at the winter solstice, and the third month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of March, was called Hrethmonath. Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

Who was Hretha and what kind of goddess was she? As far as I know, this is the only surviving mention of her. So the short answer is that we don't know, but some inferences can be drawn from the name.

According to the online Old English dictionary, the Old English noun ‘hreth’ means ‘victory, glory’. The parallel with the Roman name of the month of March, dedicated to Mars the god of victory and war, is obvious.

Kathleen Herbert says the corresponding adjective, 'hrethe', means ‘fierce, cruel, rough’, and suggests that Hretha was a war goddess or a valkyrie (Herbert 1994).

March is the last month of winter and is quite capable of bringing destructive storms as well as warm sunshine – as the people picking up the pieces in southern and western England and Wales after yesterday's visit from Storm Johanna could testify. There is a traditional belief that the seas around Britain are especially prone to violent storms in March and September, hence the term “equinoctial gales” (The equinoxes are not really associated with storms, incidentally, but there is a grain of truth in the tradition, as the frequency of high winds rises sharply in late September and declines again around the end of March).

So March might well seem an appropriate month to dedicate to a violent goddess of battle, especially if she was also fickle. Perhaps the sacrifice, whatever it was, hoped to placate her and avert the worst of the equinoctial storms. Perhaps also to ask her favour in warfare for the forthcoming campaigning season. As usual, not proven, but an interesting possibility nonetheless.

Full-text sources available online are linked in the text.
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.

07 March, 2008

Wild Geese

.....there came a faint tone of excitement into their speech. They began moving their heads from side to side in jerks. And then, turning into the wind, suddenly they would all be in the air together, fourteen or forty at a time, with wide wings scooping the blackness and a cry of triumph in their throats.

In a steamer it takes two or three days to cross the North Sea - so many hours of slobbering through the viscous water. But for the geese, for the sailors of the air, for the angled wedges tearing clouds to tatters, for the singers of the sky with the gale behind them - three miles up with cumulus for their floor instead of water - for them it was a different matter.

They planed for the last part on down-curved wings. At the last moment they scooped the wind with them, flapping vigorously. Next they were on the ground. They held their wings above their heads for a moment, then folded them with a quick and pretty neatness. They had crossed the North Sea.

--The Once and Future King, TH White

04 March, 2008

Sweet Nothings, by Pauline Montagna. Anthology review

Available as free e-books (PDF format) from Pauline Montagna’s website (click on Sweet Nothings in the left-hand navigation bar for the table of contents).

Sweet Nothings is a collection of romantic short stories and novellas, most set in contemporary Australia. At the time of writing the collection is as follows:

Short stories:

  • Disconnected

  • The Beautiful Princess

  • I’ll always have Chiang Mai

  • Desideratum

  • Ever the Bridesmaid

Regulars here may be mildly surprised to see a review of a contemporay romance anthology, since I’m not, on the whole, a card-carrying romance fan. I came across Pauline Montagna’s site via her e-zine on historical fiction, The Romance of History (well worth reading through the archives), and gradually found my way to the rest of the site. Sweet Nothings caught my eye. I tried The Beautiful Princess and found it to be a fairytale set in the timeless land of once-upon-a-time, laced with a refreshing dose of common sense, a touch of humour, economically sketched characters, and rather a charming twist on the classic narrative. Having enjoyed that one, naturally I read the rest.

The other stories in the collection are contemporary, set in Australia and Thailand. I laughed over Disconnected, with its circular tangle of mobile phone-induced confusion and conclusion-jumping. I’ll always have Chiang Mai is a blind date with a difference. Desideratum struck me as the most conventional, though the interfering friend was out of the ordinary. Ever the Bridesmaid is my favourite of the contemporary tales, a romantic comedy in which the kind and sensible heroine somehow manages to retain her sanity amid a whirl of other people’s misunderstandings, delusions and manipulations on a group holiday tour of Thailand – and comes out of it with at least the hint of a possible happy ending.

The writing is light, crisp and clear, and most of the stories have an attractive note of comedy to balance the romance. Sweet, yes, but not cloying. And not a heavy-breathing sex scene in sight. Ever the Bridesmaid paints a vivid and lively picture of contemporary tourist Thailand and the undercurrents that develop among a disparate group of strangers on a holiday tour together. I couldn’t predict the twists and turns of the various characters’ emotional entanglements, and the ending is one of optimistic possibility, which I prefer to the nailed-down certainty of the classical happy-ever-after ending. Several of the stories have a similar note of hopeful promise.

With the exception of The Beautiful Princess and Disconnected, the stories are each told from the point of view of a central female character. Not surprisingly, these women are the best developed characters with the other characters in their stories seen mainly through the eyes of the female lead and playing more secondary roles. There’s a certain amount of similarity between the situations of these main female characters – all three are Australian, single, intelligent, educated, and somewhat past youth – but there are subtle differences between them. Helen, in Ever the Bridesmaid, is my favourite. How could I not warm to a woman who quotes Dorothy Parker the first time we meet her? I’m afraid Linda in Desideratum struck me as a bit wet, which is no doubt why that story was the one that worked least well for me. Some of the secondary characters are distinctive enough to threaten to steal the show from the leads, such as the magnificently interfering Elaine in Desideratum. On the whole, I found the women more convincing than the men, perhaps reflecting the traditional female focus of romance.

A collection of light, sweet, crisp, bite-sized romances, as perfect with your coffee as an amaretti biscuit.

Has anyone else read these?