29 July, 2008

Litha (July) and Trilithi: 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 and seventh months of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern months of June and July, were 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. See my June post for the possible meaning of Litha.

Bosworth and Toller’s Old English Dictionary says that the first Litha month (corresponding roughly to modern June) was called “se aerra Litha” and the second one was called “se aeftera Litha”. Kathleen Herbert says that the information in Bosworth and Toller comes from Bede’s treatise On the Reckoning of Time, and from later English scholars who commented on it such as Aelfric and Bryhtferth (Herbert 1994). The distinguishing terms ‘aerra’ and ‘aeftera’ aren’t in Bede’s account, so I presume they come from one of the later commentaries, but I haven’t verified the source. As I understand it, the meaning is closer to “the earlier Litha” and “the later Litha”, rather than “the month before Litha” and “the month after Litha”, so “Litha” refers to the name of the months and not to a date that occurred at the junction between them.


Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

When an embolismic year occurred (that is, one of 13 lunar months), they assigned the extra month to summer, so that three months together bore the name “Litha”, hence they called the year “Trilithi”.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

This neatly demonstrates both the problem with a lunar-solar calendar and the early English solution to it. A solar year refers to one complete cycle of the sun from one midwinter solstice (or any point of your choice) to the next. This is a natural way to reckon time in an agricultural society living at temperate latitudes, where day length would be an important determinant of agricultural activities. But it is rather long to be the only unit used to measure time.

The lunar month, covering a complete cycle of the moon from one full moon (or any other point of your choice) to the next, is a shorter unit of time, conveniently intermediate between the long unit of the solar year and the short unit of the solar day. Thus a lunar-solar calendar gives you three units of time each of a different order of magnitude, so you don’t have to express time periods either in tiny fractions of a year or in very large numbers of days. Great.

Unfortunately, the problem is that none of these natural units of time are exact multiples of each other. A lunar month is 29.53 days. A solar year is 365.24 days. There are 12.37 lunar months to a solar year. So the lunar months won’t line up neatly with the solar year. Suppose you start your lunar-solar calendar at a time when the full moon also falls on the midwinter solstice, so both the year and the first month of the year start on the same date. The second month of the year starts at the next full moon, the third month starts at the full moon after that, and so on through the year. But 12 lunar months only take 29.53*12 = 354.37 days to complete. So by the time the next midwinter solstice comes round, at 365.24 days, the moon is already 10.87 days past the full. What do you do? Do you start the new year when the moon was full? In which case the year won’t match the solstice. Or do you start the first month of the new year at the solstice? In which case the months won’t match the phase of the moon.

I can imagine priests, druids and learned folk tearing their hair out over this infuriating astronomical feature. Some cultures settle on a purely solar calendar and let the months go out of phase with the moon (our modern Western calendar does this), others settle on a purely lunar calendar and let the year go out of phase with the sun (the Islamic lunar calendar does this). Others adopt a hybrid system, adding an extra month when necessary to bring the lunar months back into line with the solar year – a sort of “leap month”, if you like, in the same way as the modern Western calendar adds a day (almost) every four years to keep the calendar synchronised with the solar year. This extra month is called an intercalary month.

Clearly the early English applied this hybrid approach, adding an extra month to Litha to keep the lunar months in line with the solar years. This would happen every two or three years (every 2.72 years to be precise), so a “Trilithi” year would be pretty common. It could have been decided by calculation, by observation, or a mixture of both. If you kept a count of the observed full moons starting at the midwinter solstice each year and the second Litha full moon happened before the midsummer solstice, you would know it was a Trilithi year. If you also kept a count of the days and alternated between 29 and 30 days for a lunar month, you could calculate the date of the full moon even if the weather was too cloudy for a direct observation.

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.

23 July, 2008

The Chronicle of Zenobia: The Rebel Queen, by Judith Weingarten. Book review

Edition reviewed: Vanguard Press 2006, ISBN 1-84386-219-0

In the 3rd century AD, Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra (in modern Syria) led a rebellion against the Roman Empire. The Rebel Queen covers the start of the events that were eventually to lead up to the rebellion. From my limited knowledge of 3rd century Syria, I recognise Zenobia, her husband Odenathus and their children as historical figures, and perhaps also the dashing young general Zabdi. The author’s introductory note refers to “…the manuscript left to us by Simon, son of Barabas, a Palmyran citizen who lived through the events he describes,” which it says survives only as a single copy in a monastery in the Egyptian western desert. This Simon is the central character in the novel.

Simon is the highly intelligent son of a wealthy Jewish trading family, living in the great Syrian caravan city of Palmyra, also known as Tadmor. His cleverness, skill at oratory and knowledge of law draw him into the circle of Odenathus, the city’s able and charismatic warrior king. As storm clouds gather over the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, Simon embarks on a legal and diplomatic career that will see him rise to the rank of senator, and becomes the close friend and confidant of Odenathus’ beautiful and intelligent wife Zenobia.

The first thing to say about The Rebel Queen is that you get a lot of book for your money. I estimate the word count at something around 350,000 words (about three times the length of a ‘standard’ novel), printed in small typeface on large pages. The narrative is highly complex with a great many different threads, and this means the book requires long periods of sustained concentration to keep track of the narrative. I found that if I had to stop reading for any length of time I would have to backtrack many chapters to pick up the narrative again. As lengthy interruptions are far from infrequent it has taken me well over a year to read the whole book. It’s a novel that benefits from having long spells of uninterrupted reading time available.

The author is an archaeologist who has worked extensively in the Near East, and this expertise no doubt underlies the immense historical and archaeological detail in the book. The Rebel Queen provides a detailed portrayal of the complex and colourful world of 3rd century Syria and its surrounding territories. Religions, superstitions, philosophy, social structures and norms, family and household organisation, food, customs, towns, temples and buildings are all lovingly described, and poetry and proverbs are liberally quoted throughout. One interesting episode covers the disastrous effects of the debasement of the Roman silver coinage on the trading economy of the region, and shows how financial instability could feed into political and military events.

Much of the novel covers the military turbulence on Rome’s eastern frontier as a newly confident Persian empire flexes its military muscles, and the political turbulence in Rome as short-lived Emperors come and go. Inept military campaigns, arrogant governors and ineffectual emperors mean that Tadmor/Palmyra is increasingly forced to look to its own defences. The modern image of Rome tends to be one of a terrifyingly efficient, if brutal, military machine. So it’s useful to be reminded that (like many large institutions), the Roman Empire operated quite a lot of the time on the Dilbert principle: incompetence is no barrier to world domination provided all your competitors are just as shambolic as you are. The exasperation of the competent leaders of Tadmor at having to deal with a succession of arrogant nincompoops and pick up the pieces after their failures is very clear. I can see where the seeds of the later rebellion were sown.

The novel covers a huge canvas, from high politics and warfare to the social and domestic lives of Simon and his friends and relatives. This variety has the benefit of showing many aspects of the society, but it also makes for a sprawling narrative. An episode of high politics or military campaign will be followed by a detailed incident in Simon’s complicated love life, or a family row, or the love life of one of Simon’s friends, and by the time the narrative returned to the high politics or the military campaign I often found I had lost the thread and had to turn back several chapters to remind myself what was going on.

Despite the title, Zenobia does not appear in earnest until page 162, halfway through the book, and the novel is very much Simon’s story. He narrates most of the novel in first person, with some episodes told in third person and a few narrated by Zenobia in first person. Third-century Syria as depicted in the novel was evidently a man’s world. Simon and Odenathus expect unquestioning obedience from their wives and consider it their right to take out their bad temper on their women (although it is worth noting that a sharp-tongued and intransigent old lady can still make her son’s life a misery, so it isn’t entirely one-way). What would now be called domestic abuse is rife throughout the book. I’m not an expert on the social norms of third-century Syria so I take the author’s word for it that this is how it was. Full marks to the author for not imposing modern values on a past society, but be prepared for some unsympathetic leading characters and some stomach-churning scenes of rape and violence. Similarly, be prepared for frequent explicit sex scenes, of considerable variety, and the regular use of modern expletives.

The stormy marriage between Odenathus and Zenobia is played out against this backdrop of a male-dominated society, and displays Zenobia’s remarkable strength of will in trying to stand up to her husband. By the end of the novel Zenobia is narrating some episodes in first person, which may suggest that she will move more towards centre stage in the planned sequel. The Rebel Queen comes to a halt at the birth of Zenobia’s second son, and it is evident that this is only a pause and there is much more story still to be told in the sequel.

Detailed reconstruction of life in the complex multicultural word of third-century Roman Syria.

17 July, 2008

July recipe: Gooseberry fool

Fruit fools involve combining a fruit puree with custard or whipped cream or both, and go back to at least the seventeenth century, if not earlier. Gooseberries are the first of the summer cooking fruits to come into season, and a gooseberry fool makes a delightful and easy summer dessert.

The recipe works equally well with green or red gooseberries, or a mixture.

Gooseberry fool

8 oz (approx 250 g) gooseberries
2 oz (approx 50 g) sugar
1 oz (approx 25 g) butter
5 fl.oz (approx 140ml) double cream

Wash the gooseberries.
Top and tail them (snip off the stalks and the flower ends from the top and bottom of each berry).
Put the gooseberries in a saucepan with the sugar and butter.
Heat until the butter has melted and the sugar dissolved, then cover the pan and simmer for ten minutes or so until the fruit is soft and starting to break up.
Remove from the heat and crush the fruit with a wooden spoon. You can puree it in a food processor if you like, but I never do. If you don’t like pips, you can sieve the puree, but I never do this either.
Leave to cool.
Taste the gooseberry pulp and add more sugar if wished.
Whip the double cream until stiff.
Stir the gooseberry pulp into the cream.
Divide between four glasses and chill in the fridge for at least an hour or overnight before serving.

If you like larger portions, divide the mixture between two or three glasses instead of four.

11 July, 2008

Sutton Hoo Mound 17: The horse and his boy

Apart from the famous ship burial, the only one of the grave mounds so far excavated at Sutton Hoo to have come intact into the hands of archaeologists is Mound 17. This unusual double burial contained a young warrior and a horse, and was excavated by Martin Carver’s team in 1991 (Carver 1998). I mentioned it in an earlier post on horses in seventh-century England. Here are some more details.

The burial

Mound 17 had been so eroded by ploughing that it was hardly visible as a mound at all, just a slight platform of raised earth. (Apparently Martin Carver’s golf technique was partially responsible for its discovery). Every other mound excavated at Sutton Hoo, except the great ship burial of Mound 1, had been robbed, so Mound 17 was extremely unusual in being discovered intact. A robber’s pit had indeed been cut in the mound, but had been placed in the centre and had come down between the two grave pits, no doubt puzzling and disappointing the robbers and leading them to conclude that the mound was empty. It wasn’t.

Excavation revealed two grave pits under the mound, one containing a young man and the other containing a horse. The horse was a stallion or gelding, five or six years old and about 14 hands high.

The young man was aged about twenty-five, and had been buried in a rectangular wooden coffin fitted with iron clamps. At his side there was a long sword with a horn pommel, together with an iron knife in a leather sheath. The buckle of his sword-belt was made of bronze inlaid with garnets. A small cloth-lined leather purse or pouch had been placed by his shoulder, containing seven rough-cut garnets, a single garnet in the shape of a bird’s beak, and a fragment of red and blue glass – keepsakes of some kind, perhaps?

Underneath the coffin were two spears and a shield with an iron boss; the coffin had been laid on top of the shield boss and had canted over at the time of burial. Alongside the left (north) edge of the coffin were an iron-bound bucket, a bronze cauldron with an earthenware cooking pot stacked inside it, and a handful of lamb chops propping up a bronze bowl. The cauldron had probably contained some perishable material such as grain, which had decayed and been replaced by sand from the grave fill, and the lamb chops and the bronze bowl had originally been in some kind of haversack or kit bag, along with some other perishable food (perhaps bread or fruit?).

At the west (head) end of the grave pit a splendid horse harness was found – a bit with gilt-bronze cheek pieces, joined to reins, nose-band and brow-band. The strap connectors were gilt-bronze and covered in animal ornament, decorated with axe-shaped bronze pendants. Two gilt-bronze strap-ends were decorated in the form of human faces (rather sweet, as strap-ends on human garments are often decorated with animals). Fragments of leather and wood on top of the harness were probably from a saddle, and on top of that was a tapering wooden tub for feeding the horse.

Leaning against the coffin side, as if it had been dropped into the grave at the last minutes, was a comb.

There are some photographs of the grave-goods here.

Opinion is divided on the date of the burial, with Angela Evans dating it to the late sixth century and Martin Carver to the early seventh century, according to a review of a recent publication.

The excavator describes the young man in Mound 17 thus:

….a heroic image worthy of a young Siegfried: mounted on his stallion, with gold and silver roundels, strap-ends and pendants dangling and turning; the horn-pommelled sword in its sheath, right hand holding the spears, left arm through the shield strap and left hand holding the reins; and behind, attached to the saddle or body harness, the camping kit: bucket, cauldron and pot, and the haversack with iron rations and a bronze bowl to fill at forest stream or spring. His early death was mourned through the evocation of every young man’s dream: to ride out well-equipped on a favourite mount, on a sunny morning, free of relatives, free of love, free of responsibility, self-sufficient and ready for any adventure.

--Carver, 1998.

Who was he?

The short and accurate answer to this is that we don’t know and we can’t know, unless some future discovery happens to include an inscription with the dead man’s name. It is, however, fun to speculate.

In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede mentions Raegenhere, son of Raedwald King of the East Angles (more information on Raedwald in an earlier post). Raegenhere died a hero’s death in battle in around 617:

….he [Raedwald] raised a great army to make war on Aethelferth and allowing him no time to summon his full strength, encountered him with a great preponderance of force and killed him. In this battle, which was fought in Mercian territory on the east bank of the river Idle, Raegenhere, son of Raedwald, also met his death.

--Bede, Book II Ch. 12

How about Raegenhere as a candidate for the princely occupant of Sutton Hoo Mound 17? He was presumably a young man, since his father King Raedwald was still of fighting age. If the grave dates to the early seventh century the date is consistent. A warrior’s grave with weapons and a horse would seem appropriate for a young man who died in battle far from home. No traumatic bone injuries were mentioned for the young warrior in Mound 17, but plenty of fatal injuries would leave no mark on the skeleton. For example, a puncture wound to the abdomen or a flesh wound that happened to sever a major artery could quickly lead to death from loss of blood without damage to a bone. Assuming the battle was fought somewhere near modern Bawtry, where the River Idle flows north-south (and therefore has an east bank) and is crossed by a major Roman road, the distance from Sutton Hoo was about 140 miles. This would be a long way to bring a body home for burial in a cart or a horse litter (though it might have been undertaken for a sufficiently important casualty). However, Bawtry is not far from the River Trent, which is easily navigable at that point (a few centuries later the Vikings could sail still further upstream), and a journey by ship down the Trent to the Humber and then round the coasts of Lincolnshire and East Anglia to Sutton Hoo would have taken the Sutton Hoo ship only a couple of days with a fair wind. If Raedwald’s “great army” used ships for logistical support and/or transport, this could have been quite a credible way of bringing the casualties home.

I should stress, of course, that I don’t claim that Raegenhere is the young man in Mound 17, only that he could be. No doubt the royal or aristocratic dynasty that buried its members at Sutton Hoo had plenty of young men who met early deaths due to accident, illness or injury some time around the turn of the sixth and seventh century, any of whom could be the occupant of Mound 17. As ever, other interpretations are possible.

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.

08 July, 2008


The stately spires of foxgloves brighten up roadsides and field edges in early summer. 'Foxglove' occurs in a manuscript dated to 1000 AD, and is derived from 'fox' and 'glove' according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which notes that the plant is called 'fox bell' in Norway. Why the plant should be associated with foxes is mysterious, though there is a rather charming Scandinavian story that foxes were told by wicked fairies to wear the flowers on their feet so they could creep up silently on chicken coops.

Foxgloves are associated with magic and supernatural beings, usually not of the benevolent kind, with names such as "witches' gloves", "dead men's bells", "dead men's fingers", "fairy thimbles" (Pollington 2000). This may be because the plant is highly poisonous, which would be a sufficiently good reason to ascribe it unlucky properties and keep well away. Foxgloves contain digitalin, one of whose effects is to make the heart muscle pump harder - potentially useful in cases of congestive heart failure, but fatal in overdose.

Foxes and fairies aside, the creature to which foxglove flowers are superbly well adapted is the bee. If you watch a patch of flowering foxgloves on a sunny day you will probably notice them being visited by large numbers of bees. This isn't a coincidence; the foxglove is doing the bee a favour by providing it with a free meal of nectar, and the bee is doing the foxglove a favour by pollinating its seeds.

Have a close look at a foxglove flower, and you can see some of the adaptations that make it especially well suited to pollination by bees.

The foxglove flower is bell-shaped, with a wide mouth tapering to a narrower tunnel. Right at the top of the tunnel is the nectar, a sweet sugar solution that bees like to feed on. This is essentially a bribe to persuade the bee to climb up inside the flower to get at it. As the bee squeezes up to the top of the flower - a tight fit for an insect of its size - it has to brush against the reproductive parts of the flower which are located in the roof of the tunnel. If you look closely at the last photograph you can just see the tips in some of the bells. As the bee brushes past the male parts of the flower it gets showered with pollen. When it has drunk the nectar at the base of the flower, the bee backs out of the mouth of the bell and flies off to the next flower, where it rubs some of its pollen load off on the female reproductive parts and picks up more pollen. And so on. Once pollinated, the flower can set seed (something like a million seeds per flower for the foxglove), which will then be scattered on the wind to spread the plant to new locations. The bees get fed; the plant gets to reproduce. Mutual help.

Foxglove flowers are purple because bees happen to be attracted to purple. The wide mouth of the flower and its extended lower lip makes it easy for bees to land on it. The pretty patterns of splotches and dots inside the flower that look like abstract art to us are the equivalent of landing lights and taxiways, saying to the bee, "This way to the nectar". They show up even more vividly in ultraviolet light, which humans can't see but bees can. You may just be able to see very fine hairs on the lower lip of the flower; these are guard hairs and they deter smaller insects from landing. Small insects would be able to climb up to the nectar without brushing against the reproductive parts of the flower, so they would get a free meal without spreading the pollen; a good thing for the insect but not for the plant, hence the deterrent hairs.

So, not so much stealthy slippers for foxes or thimbles for fairies as a cafeteria for bees. But that wouldn't make such a pretty name.

Pollington, S. Leechcraft. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003, ISBN 978-1898281-23-8.

01 July, 2008

Lord of Silver, by Alan Fisk. Book review

Edition reviewed: Xlibris, 2000, 0-7388-3416-5

Lord of Silver is set in Roman Britain and its neighbouring kingdoms in 366/367, against the background of the ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’. All the main characters are fictional. The name of the central character, Austalis, is recorded on a tile now in the Museum of London, but nothing is known of the individual concerned. Some historical figures appear as secondary characters, including the theologian Pelagius and the Roman army officer Magnus Maximus (later a rebel Emperor, whom regulars here may have encountered as the Macsen Wledig of Welsh tradition and from Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy).

Austalis is a young warrior of the British tribal kingdom of Gododdin, which bordered the Roman province of Britain at the east end of Hadrian’s Wall. His father Notfried was a Frisian who served in the Roman Army, and Austalis is eager to see the great Empire his father told him so much about. Entering Roman Britain through one of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall, he travels to the provincial capital Londinium (modern London), seeking variety, an education and a religion. Austalis finds Roman Britain exciting and cosmopolitan, full of strange and marvellous sights and people. Two of its exotic religions, Mithraism and Christianity, offer to accept him, and when the rich and beautiful Lady Marcella agrees to marry him it seems to Austalis that he has found all he desires. But his dreams are dashed at the last minute, leaving Austalis to plot a terrible revenge.

The strength of Lord of Silver, for me, is its historical detail. Readers who are familiar with Roman Britain will be delighted to recognise names, sites and objects known from historical and archaeological records. Marcella’s villa, now known as Lullingstone Roman Villa (more information and some links on Wikipedia), is lovingly described, as is the Temple of Mithras in London, Vercovicium fort on Hadrian’s Wall (now known as Housesteads) and the Temple of Nodens at Lydney in Gloucestershire. I recognised the “Murder House” at Housesteads in the novel, and the mausoleum at Lullingstone – and I’m not an expert on Roman Britain. I expect there are a great many more that I didn’t recognise. If you enjoy walking around ruins and trying to imagine how they worked in real life, Lord of Silver would be a great handbook to take with you. Another delightful feature of the novel was its use of isolated names from the archaeological record, people who aren’t even a footnote in history. The main character himself, Austalis, is known only from a message written on a Roman roof tile. His father Notfried (Hnaudifridus), commander of an auxiliary troop, is known from an altar at Housesteads Roman fort. Senecianus and Silvianus are known from a curse tablet deposited at the Lydney temple, in which Silvianus curses Senecianus for the loss of a valuable ring. If the inscription on the silver Venus ring found at nearby Silchester, which reads “Senecianus, may you live in God”, refers to the same Senecianus, this might even be the ring in question. Nothing further is known about these two individuals, the ring or the quarrel between them. In Lord of Silver, Alan Fisk gives them a fleeting life as minor characters.

As well as his travels in Roman Britain, Austalis journeys to the tribal kingdoms involved in the Barbarian Conspiracy, including his homeland of Gododdin, the lands of the mysterious Attacotti (here identified as the inhabitants of the Hebrides and speaking a language related to Basque), the Irish settlers in what is now Wales, and the Germanic kingdoms of continental Europe such as the Frisians, Saxons and Angli. These tribes and kingdoms are also carefully described, from their style of dress and buildings to their customs and social structures. As a result, Lord of Silver offers a detailed picture of life both inside and outside the Roman Empire in the late fourth century.

Although the romance between Austalis and Marcella, and its impact on Austalis’ subsequent actions, drives the whole plot, the emotional portrayal is surprisingly low-key, leaving many gaps about the characters’ feelings and motivations for the reader to fill in. Austalis describes Marcella as the only woman he ever loved, and I suppose the reader has to take his word for it, yet his actions seem to me to have at least as much to do with hurt pride. Marcella’s side of the relationship is hardly shown at all. Similarly, the Barbarian Conspiracy itself is organised with astonishing, and to me rather unsatisfying, ease. And although Austalis is afraid that he is watched by Roman spies, the only ones he encounters seem to be on his side. I would have liked to see a little more excitement, action and danger, and a few more twists and turns in the plot.

The novel is written in straightforward modern English, with the occasional phrase in Latin or German to hint at the linguistic diversity of the Empire. A map would have been useful to follow Austalis’ complicated journeys, especially outside Britain. The author includes a short but useful historical note acknowledging some of the historical sources behind the novel.

Detailed fictional survey of the religious and social landscape of late Roman Britain and its neighbouring tribal kingdoms.

Has anyone else read it?