28 June, 2008

June recipe: Frittata

A frittata is a sort of cross between an omelette and a souffle. It makes an ideal dish for the summer months, being quick to cook so you don’t have to hover over a hot stove for too long, and susceptible to variation according to the available ingredients. This variant uses spring onions and mushrooms and is good served with a green salad. Later in the season you can use courgettes and sweet peppers and serve it with a tomato salad.

Bacon and spring onion frittata

Serves 2

Four spring onions (or half a small onion)
2 oz (approx 50 g) mushrooms
2 oz (approx 50 g) bacon
2 oz (approx 50 g) hard cheese (Cheddar works well), grated
3 eggs
Fresh herbs of your choice (I usually use parsley, thyme, marjoram or basil, depending on what’s growing well at the time), or dried mixed herbs if fresh herbs aren’t available

Trim and chop the spring onions.
Peel and slice the mushrooms.
Chop the bacon into narrow strips.
Beat the eggs in a jug, and stir in the grated cheese and chopped herbs.
Fry the onions, mushrooms and bacon in cooking oil in a frying pan over a medium heat until softened and starting to brown.
Season with salt and black pepper, and spread the mixture in an even layer over the bottom of the pan.
Pour in the eggs and cheese, and tilt the pan if necessary so that the egg mixture runs out to the edges. Cook for 2-3 minutes over a medium heat until the bottom is set (you can tell by lifting the edge with a spatula and peeking underneath).
Remove from the heat, and place under a hot grill for a further 2-3 minutes until the top is puffy and golden brown.
Serve immediately with fresh bread and salad.

Best eaten in the garden on a warm summer’s evening, with the swifts screaming overhead like black-clad bikers roaring through a sleepy resort, blackbirds feeding their fledglings shoulder-deep in daisies on the uncut lawn, and a kamikaze wasp doing ineffectual backstroke in your wineglass before expiring with a slurred alcoholic buzz.

24 June, 2008

Litha (June): 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 sixth month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of June, was called Litha. Like its counterpart in the winter, Giuli (from which we get the word Yule), Litha was a double-length month, or two months of the same name, placed either side of the midsummer solstice.

Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

Litha means “gentle” or “navigable”, because in both those months the calm breezes are gentle and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

In the online Old English Dictionary, “lithe” is translated as “soft, gentle, mild, serene” and the verb “lithan” as “to go, travel, sail”, both consistent with Bede’s statement.

However, it might also have another meaning, since elsewhere in the same passage Bede says:

“Winterfilleth”, a name made up from “winter” and “full moon”
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

This suggests that the element ‘-leth’ can mean ‘moon’, or at least that Bede thought it could. This is somewhat puzzling, as it doesn’t appear in the Old English Dictionary, and the usual Old English word for ‘moon’ is ‘mona’, related to 'monath', modern English ‘month’. However, the same dictionary also gives the Old English word ‘lyftfaet’ meaning ‘vessel in the air’ for ‘moon’. The element ‘lyft’ appears as ‘Luft’, ‘sky’, in modern German, so it isn’t directly related to ‘-leth’. But to speak of the full moon ‘sailing in the sky’ is occasionally used as a poetic figure of speech now, and I wonder if that poetic image of the full moon as a serenely sailing ship goes back to Bede’s day. If so, it could be a link between ‘Litha’ and ‘-leth’. Perhaps some sort of kenning described the moon as ‘sailing’ and could be used as an alternative name for the moon in certain contexts, much as the sea could be called the ‘whale-road’. If so, perhaps the name ‘Litha’ could have been something to do with the moon, as well as being a description of prevailing travelling conditions? I should stress that I am no linguist and I have no evidence for this suggestion.

We know from Bede’s account that the midwinter solstice was an important feast day. Since Litha bracketed the midsummer solstice in the same way that Giuli bracketed the midwinter solstice, it would seem a reasonable inference that the midsummer solstice was also celebrated in some way. Bede doesn’t mention any celebration, ceremony or feast, so the imagination is pretty well free to roam. Kathleen Herbert argues that Bede’s silence on the subject shows that Litha “… must have been a sacred name, too holy – or too pagan – for common use and Christian explanation.” (Herbert 1994). I don’t think I would go quite that far in inference from a negative. But there may be a few clues to be gleaned from the Christian feast-day held on the same date in the calendar.

The Christian church celebrates the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist on or near Midsummer’s Day. That might be pure coincidence, since according to Luke’s Gospel St John was supposed to have been conceived (and therefore, presumably, born) about six months before Jesus and therefore once Christmas had settled on the midwinter solstice, logically St John’s nativity would have had to settle on the midsummer solstice for consistency. Or it might indicate the importance of the midsummer date. St John the Baptist was an extremely important saint, so giving him the midsummer solstice feast day may indicate that the pre-Christian festival had also been a very important one, perhaps second only to the midwinter feast.

Various European traditions involve a special fire being lit on St John’s feast-day (see Wikipedia for some examples), along with drinking, feasting and revelry. This might suggest that a pre-Christian midsummer festival, if one existed, also involved a fire ceremony. Or, prosaically, it might just indicate that a big fire helps any outdoor party go with a swing! As usual, other interpretations are possible.

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.

19 June, 2008

The Grey Corries

The Grey Corries is a particularly splendid mountain ridge in the Central Highlands of Scotland. The ridge rises above the village of Spean Bridge, a few miles east of Fort William. Location map here. The ridge runs from Stob Choire Claurigh to Stob Coire Easain, which is one peak west of Stob Coire an Laoigh. Zoom in on the map and move east and west with the arrow buttons to see the detail of the individual peaks. They don’t all fit on one screen. The name comes from the pale grey quartzite screes that drape the mountains’ north-facing corries, as shown in the photo: The picture just about covers the full ridge. The route climbs the broad green ridge above the forest on the left of the picture, then traverses along the row of grey rocky peaks forming the skyline, then descends the green-grey ridge dappled with sunshine on the extreme right of the picture.

Moving from left to right, the peaks are as follows:

  • Stob Coire Gaibhre – peak of the corrie of the goat

  • Stob Choire Claurigh – (obscure, possibly peak of the coire of clamouring)

  • Stob a’ Choire Leith – peak of the grey corrie

  • Stob Coire Cath na Sine – peak of the corrie of the battle of the elements

  • Caisteil – the castle

  • Stob Coire an Laoigh – peak of the corrie of the calf

  • Stob Coire Easain – peak of the corrie of the waterfall
Distance - 23 km (about 14 miles) Ascent – 1400 m (about 4,300 feet). I’ve had my eye on this ridge for the better part of a decade, waiting for fine clear weather to climb it. The route takes about 10 hours walking and the views are fantastic, so it’s worth waiting for a clear day. Here’s the result. Click on the controls to play, and come for a walk along one of the finest ridges on the Scottish mainland.

08 June, 2008

Horses in seventh-century England

Did the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) ride horses? Evidence comes from both documentary and archaeological sources.

Documentary evidence

Several mentions in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, written in 731, indicate that riding horses was considered to be normal for royalty and bishops:

…..[The chief priest] asked the king to give him arms and a stallion – for hitherto it had not been lawful for the chief priest to carry arms or to ride anything but a mare – and thus equipped he set out to destroy the idols. Girded with a sword and with a spear in his hand, he mounted the king’s stallion….

--Bede, Book II, Ch. 13

…whether in battle or on a peaceful progress on horseback through city, town and countryside, the royal standard was always borne in front of him.
--Bede, Book II, Ch. 16.

[King Oswin] had given Bishop Aidan a very fine horse, in order that he could ride whenever he had to cross a river or undertake any difficult or urgent journey, although the bishop ordinarily travelled on foot. Not long afterwards, when a poor man met the bishop and asked for alms, the bishop immediately dismounted and ordered the horse, with all its royal trappings, to be given to the beggar […]
When this action came to the king’s ears, he asked the bishop “My lord bishop, why did you give away the royal horse which was necessary for your own use? Have we not many less valuable horses or other belongings which would have been good enough for beggars, without giving away a horse that I had specially selected for your personal use?”
--Bede, Book III, Ch. 14

In the poem Beowulf, the coastguard who challenges Beowulf and his followers when they first arrive in Hrothgar’s kingdom is mounted on a horse:
Hrothgar’s thane, when his horse had picked
Its way down to the shore, shook his spear
Fiercely at arm’s length, framed the challenge

--Beowulf, translated by Michael Alexander

War-horses are among the gifts given by Hrothgar to Beowulf for the slaying of Grendel:
The king the ordered eight war-horses
With glancing bridles to be brought within walls

--Beowulf, translated by Michael Alexander

According to the Life of Wilfrid, King Ecgfrith of Northumbria and his army of horsemen (equitatus exercitus) won an important battle against the Picts in 672.
--(Halsall 2003, citing Eddius Stpehanus’ Life of Wilfrid).

Archaeological evidence

Horse bones occasionally turn up as grave-goods in early English cremation burials. For example, the cremation burials in Mounds 3 and 4 at Sutton Hoo both included pieces of horse bone (Carver 1998). Such bones clearly confirm that horses were present in early England, but cannot show what they were used for. They could indicate that horses were ridden, used to pull vehicles, eaten, or any combination thereof.

Confirmation that horses were ridden and were associated with the warrior class comes from three spectacular burials discovered in East Anglia. Mound 17 at Sutton Hoo, the only grave mound at Sutton Hoo to be discovered intact besides the famous ship burial, was excavated in 1991 and found to contain the body of a young man buried with a sword, two spears, a shield and various other items, and the body of a horse complete with bridle and reins. (More details in a later post). The horse was part skeleton and part sand-body*, and sufficiently well preserved to show that it had been a thick-set male about five or six years old and standing about 14 hands tall.

Two other inhumation burials, each containing a man buried with weapons and a horse, were excavated at RAF Lakenheath in 1997 and 1999. The horse in the 1997 burial was also about 14 hands, and was reconstructed (along with his rider) for a BBC documentary. The burial was dated to around 550 AD. The second Lakenheath horse was a little smaller and slighter, standing about 13 hands and aged about eight or nine years, and also dated to the sixth century.


Bede’s story about the chief priest indicates that (a) the king rode a stallion; (b) the chief priest was clearly a capable rider, since he was able to ride and manage it; (c) there was a rule about the type of animal a chief priest could ride, which implies that he was expected to ride. Now, Bede’s account was written down a century after the event and may or may not be an accurate reflection of real happenings – though I would hesitate to claim that we know more than Bede did about his country’s recent history. It does demonstrate that in the eighth century Bede, and/or his source, thought that kings and priests rode horses in the seventh.

Similarly, Bede’s story about King Oswin and Bishop Aidan, which takes place some time in the 640s, shows clearly that the king owned and rode horses, expected a bishop to do likewise, and considered a horse to be an important and valuable gift. The Beowulf poet, and presumably the poem’s audience, also considered war-horses to be a suitable gift for a high-ranking warrior.

The mounted coastguard in Beowulf indicates that it was expected that at least some soldiers would ride in the course of carrying out their duties. The explicit reference to Ecgfrith’s army as “horsemen” suggests that quite large bodies of mounted warriors could be assembled for campaigns in distant territories (Ecgfrith’s army was invading Pictland, the area north of the Forth-Clyde valleys in modern Scotland). Whether they fought on horseback as cavalry, or were ‘mounted infantry’ who rode to battle and then dismounted to fight, or both, is a moot point, and a subject for another post.

The horse burials from East Anglia support the documentary evidence that at least some warriors owned and rode horses, and also give us an idea of what such horses might have looked like. All three were quite small, and would be considered ponies by modern standards (a pony is defined as a horse smaller than 14.2 hands). They must have been quite strong and sturdy to carry the weight of an adult man and his equipment, which is consistent with the Sutton Hoo horse being described as “thick-set”.

Perhaps they resembled some of the sturdy British ponies still around today, such as the Fell Pony or the Highland Pony, also called a garron. These breeds are about the same size as the horses in the burials. They have been used for centuries in the uplands of England and Scotland, both for riding and for carrying heavy loads over long distances. Fell ponies heaved ore over the mountains from the Lake District mines, for example, and Highland ponies are still used today on some estates to carry the stags down after a successful stalk. When trying to imagine what an English warrior’s horse might have looked like in the seventh century, I should think one could do a lot worse than start with the Fell Pony.

So, I think we can be fairly sure that the answer to the question, “Did the early English ride horses?” is “Yes”, at least for the military and religious elite. To what extent this applied to the rest of society is a different, and trickier, question.


Halsall, Guy. Warfare and society in the barbarian West, 450–900. Routledge, 2003, ISBN 0415239397.
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, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Beowulf, translated by Michael Alexander. Penguin, 1973, ISBN 0-14-044268-5

* Sand bodies were a feature of the 1990s excavation at Sutton Hoo. The acid sandy soil of the site sometimes interacts with a decaying body to leave a fragile crusty surface outlining the original surface of the body. These can be rather macabre, reminiscent of the plaster casts of the bodies at Pompeii. See Martin Carver’s book for pictures.