30 December, 2012

The Lion At Bay, by Robert Low. Book review

Harper Collins, 2012. ISBN 978-0-00-733789-7. 389 pages

Set in Scotland, northern England and London in 1304-1307, The Lion At Bay is the second in Robert Low’s series about the Scottish Wars of Independence, following The Lion Wakes (reviewed here earlier). Robert Bruce, Isabel MacDuff Countess of Buchan, William Wallace and Edward I of England are important characters, and other historical figures including the future Edward II of England, ‘Red John’ Comyn of Badenoch and James Douglas also feature. The main characters, Sir Henry (Hal) Sientcler of Herdmanston, the members of his household, and Bruce’s henchman, spy and fixer Roger Kirkpatrick*, are fictional.

William Wallace is back in Scotland and resuming his fight against Edward I. Robert Bruce, whose secret ambition is to gain the Scottish throne for himself, has temporarily submitted to Edward I to further his feud with his arch-rivals, the Comyn family. Hal of Herdmanston is in the Bruce retinue, sick at heart for the loss of his home and his love Isabel MacDuff, who has reluctantly returned to her husband the Earl of Buchan. Murder, treachery and betrayal abound, as various factions search for the Black Rood of Scotland, stolen from Edward’s treasury in London. And when the Bruce-Comyn feud erupts into violence, Scotland is plunged yet again into war. 

Like its predecessor, The Lion At Bay is a gripping adventure novel with plenty of violent action, political scheming and a mystery sub-plot. Although the struggle that became known as the Wars of Independence has often been portrayed in later ages as a nationalistic fight between Scotland and England, at the time it was at least as much a Scottish civil war between powerful noble factions, chiefly the Bruce family and the Comyn family. This political chaos, with the Bruce-Comyn feud as apparently the only fixed point, provides a turbulent backdrop to the novel. Only one major battle features in this instalment, the battle of Methven (a disaster for Robert Bruce), but there is no shortage of other violent action, ranging from a knightly joust a l’outrance to a street brawl in a slaughterhouse, from siege to assassination and murder. The mystery sub-plot, a quest to recover the Black Rood of Scotland – necessary for the proper coronation of a King of Scots – and its fictional reliquary set with twelve magnificent rubies, forms a unifying thread to hold the narrative together. 

Robert Bruce is no idealised hero in this portrayal. He is harsh, ruthless, deceitful and capable of treachery and murder – occasionally with his own hand, more often via the enigmatic Kirkpatrick. Hal of Herdmanston, a minor Lothian lord who became a Bruce supporter almost by accident (recounted in The Lion Wakes) is ambivalent towards Bruce, repelled by some of his actions but fighting for him anyway.  If I have any quibble with this portrayal, it is that I am not entirely clear why men like Hal were willing to fight and suffer for Bruce, especially in the days after the disastrous battle of Methven when Bruce must have looked like a lost cause. Perhaps because Bruce was the last man standing; perhaps because Edward I (nicknamed in the novel ‘The Covetous King’) had earned himself the undying hatred of a lot of Scots by then; perhaps because by this stage many were concerned less with Bruce personally and more with the abstract ideals of independence and a contract between people and king. The stirring words of the Declaration of Arbroath make an appearance more than once in The Lion At Bay. 

Many of the characters introduced in The Lion Wakes reappear in The Lion At Bay, older now and many growing weary of war. William Wallace has dwindled to an outlaw leader, ‘a monstrous frightener of bairns’, as he wryly muses to himself. Hal and Isabel are older, their love undiminished but thwarted by circumstances. Their love affair has a terrible poignancy amidst the sweetness, especially for a reader who knows Isabel’s eventual fate.  Even the indestructible Kirkpatrick is not immune from age and injury. Conversely, Dog Boy, who was a child in The Lion Wakes, has now grown into an energetic and able young man and become a key member of Hal’s retinue (and I was right about his parentage, which is confirmed in the character list).

The writing is vivid, with a vein of black humour and a scattering of Scots words and phrases to set the scene. Readers who find the Scots words problematic may like to bookmark the glossary at the back of the book where many of them are explained. A list of characters identifies those who are fictional and those who are historical figures, and a short Author’s Note outlines some of the underlying history and the fictional additions and alterations.

Gripping, violent adventure full of action and intrigue, set against the turbulence of the Scottish Wars of Independence in the early fourteenth century.

*Roger Kirkpatrick of Closeburn, he of the famous ‘Mak’ siccar’ line, is a historical figure. The Roger Kirkpatrick in Robert Low’s series is a fictional kinsman and namesake of the historical figure.

28 December, 2012

December recipe: Fruit cake

This is a rich and comforting fruit cake for the winter, not to be confused with the much darker and heavier traditional Christmas cake.  It will happily share a slow oven with a casserole, such as beef and vegetable hot pot.

You can vary the dried fruit as you please, depending on taste and availability.

Fruit cake

4 oz (approx 125 g) light brown soft sugar
4 oz (approx 125 g) butter
2 eggs
rind of 1 orange (optional)
8 oz (approx 250 g) self-raising flour
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) ground mixed spice
0.5 teaspoon (1 x 2.5 ml spoon) ground nutmeg
14 oz (approx 400 g mixed dried fruit of your choice*
milk to mix

*e.g. glace cherries, dates, dried apricots, raisins, sultanas, currants, cut mixed (candied) peel

Grease a loaf tin about 8 inches by 4.5 inches by 3 inches (approx 20 cm by 11 cm by 7 cm).  Line it with a strip of greased greaseproof paper.

Halve the glace cherries (if using).  Chop the apricots and dates (if using) into pieces about the size of a raisin. 

Melt the butter in a large mixing bowl.  Beat in the sugar. 

Beat in the eggs and orange rind (if using). 

Stir in the flour, spices and chopped dried fruit.  Mix well. 

Stir in a little milk, until the cake mixture is a soft dropping consistency (i.e., if you lift a spoonful of mixture out of the bowl and hold the spoon vertically, most of the cake mixture will drop off the spoon and fall back into the bowl). 

Put the cake mixture into the greased and lined loaf tin and level the top. 

Bake in a slow oven at about 150 C for about 1.5 hours, until set and a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean (i.e. with at most one or two crumbs clinging to it, not coated in a layer of uncooked cake mixture). 

Cool for a few minutes in the tin, then turn the cake out of the tin and cool on a wire rack. 

The cake will keep in an airtight tin for a week or so, and freezes well.

21 December, 2012

Roman York to Anglian York: a speculative model

In this sequence of posts, I have summarised some documentary and archaeological evidence that may help to sketch out a picture of York in the post-Roman centuries. For a summary, see the preceding post in the series.

I have also discussed the Brittonic ruler Peredur, recorded in the late sixth century and associated with York in later medieval tradition.
I suggested that York continued to be inhabited, probably at a low density, and to be used at least on occasion by the local rulers during the fifth and sixth centuries. If correct, this could provide a mechanism for York to retain its status as a political, ecclesiastical and military centre, and possibly some of its cultural heritage, throughout the gap in the historical record.

However, the context in which such a status functioned clearly changed between the fourth and seventh centuries.  In the fourth century, York was under the control of Roman officials, part of the diocese of Britain and the Western Roman Empire, the base of a legion of regular army troops, and the seat of a bishop.  In the early seventh century, York was under the control of the early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) king of Deira/ Northumbria, had no established bishopric (or at least not one that Pope Gregory recognised), and was not part of a political entity bigger than the kingdom of Northumbria (or possibly of whatever was represented by the title of ‘Bretwalda’, which on the most generous interpretation only extends to most, not all, of modern England and parts of southern Scotland).  How might this transition have come about?  There are several broad possibilities. 

Direct transfer of power from Rome to English kings

One possibility is that power was transferred directly from the last Roman officials to the first English king, some time after Emperor Honorius told the British civitates to ‘look to their own defences’ in the early fifth century. The Late Roman Army was in the habit of recruiting Germanic ‘barbarians’ as allies and mercenaries, some of whom reached positions of great power. Stilicho, the general and de facto Emperor in the early fifth century, had a Vandal father. In the 360s the Dux Britanniarum had a Germanic name, Fullofaudes, and in 300 a Germanic warrior-king called Crocus and his troops helped to elevate Constantine the Great to Emperor in York. If the Roman Army based at York in the early fifth century was either commanded by a Germanic general like Fullofaudes or Stilicho, or relied heavily on a Germanic mercenary ally like Crocus, it is not hard to see how such an individual could have become in effect the ruler of York and its surroundings, and effectively founded a kingdom with little more than a change of terminology. In this model one of the last Roman officials could also have been the first English king.

Something like this happened in parts of Continental Europe, where Germanic kings such as Clovis in Gaul (roughly modern France) effectively took over chunks of the former Western Roman Empire wholesale. However, such a direct transfer does not fit easily with some aspects of the situation in York. First, the Christian church hierarchy seems to have disappeared in York, or at least was no longer recognised by Rome, since Pope Gregory clearly expected to establish a new bishopric there. This contrasts with the situation in Gaul, where Christian bishops continued under Clovis and were recognised in Rome. Second, although Clovis was a Frank and Frankish was a Germanic language, the language that became dominant in his territory was a descendant of Latin (eventually evolving into modern French). By contrast, the language that emerged in York was English, a Germanic language. It is possible that a particular set of circumstances could explain both of these differences – e.g. if the leader who took over in York happened to be a committed pagan who chased out any Christian church hierarchy, or if Germanic languages were already widely spoken in and around York after generations of recruiting Germanic soldiers who retained connections with friends and relatives across the North Sea. Nevertheless, my interpretation is that these differences are consistent with a less direct transition in York.

Invasion and conquest

A second possibility is that English warriors invaded and conquered Roman York and its surrounding area, destroyed the Roman aristocracy and the Christian church, expelled or oppressed the Roman population, and established their own kingdom without reference to anything that had gone before.  Such a hypothetical conquest could have happened at any time between the early fifth century and the late sixth or early seventh century. This model explains the absence of a bishop in the early seventh century, and the presence of pagan English cremation cemeteries at The Mount and Heworth in York in the fifth-sixth century.

Given York’s importance in Roman Britain, one might have expected to find such a conquest recorded in Annales Cambriae alongside battles such as Arthuret, or as a comment on an early king of Deira in the king-lists in Historia Brittonum or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (‘X who conquered York’ like the enigmatic comment about Soemil), or to appear at least as a passing reference in poetry or the Triads. It may be possible that the reference to Soemil was supposed to mean that he had conquered York, expressed in an oblique way. It may also be possible that the un-located battle of Caer Greu mentioned in the Triads, where Peredur and his brother Gwrgi were killed (see post on Peredur), could be an oblique reference to a battle at York, called for some reason by the name of ‘Caer Greu’ instead of its more usual ‘Caer Ebrauc’ or ‘Caer Efrawg’.  It may also be possible that the enigmatic entry for the death of ‘Bishop Ebur’ in Annales Cambriae in 501 AD (see post on the documentary sources for post-Roman York) could be an oblique reference to an invasion and conquest that extinguished the bishopric. I am not convinced, because these are all very oblique; they could refer to a conquest of York, but that’s mostly because it isn’t clear what they refer to, so they could mean almost anything. It seems odd to me that there is no clear ‘X conquered Eboracum/ Caer Ebrauc’ or ‘X was killed in the battle of Eboracum /Caer Ebrauc’. However, the sources are so sparse that absence of evidence cannot be taken as evidence of absence.

Staged transition from Roman to a Brittonic kingdom to an English kingdom

A third possibility is that Roman York became an independent Brittonic kingdom that later became an English kingdom. Brittonic kingdoms are recorded in the late sixth and early seventh century in what is now northern England, such as the kingdom of Elmet in the area around modern Leeds, a few miles west of York (see post on Elmet), and the kingdom of Rheged somewhere in what is now north-western England and/or south-western Scotland (more on Rheged in a later post). If York was the centre of a similar kingdom, that would fit with the pattern.

Such a kingdom could have evolved from the military authority held by the late Roman army commander based at York (by a mechanism similar to the first possibility outlined above) and/or from the civilian political authority held by the leader(s) of the colonia. It could be similar to the situation at Birdoswald, where someone was building timber halls fit for a chieftain in the fifth to sixth centuries, presumably using the Roman fort for its defensive capability or its prestige or both. If some of the people in authority in Late Roman York were members of, or had close links with, the local British aristocracy, such a hypothetical post-Roman kingdom in York could have developed into a Brittonic tribal kingdom.

This model can accommodate the reference in Annales Cambriae to ‘Bishop Ebur’ in 501.  If the hypothetical Brittonic kingdom had developed out of a Late Roman Christian Brittonic aristocracy, it may also have retained the Late Roman Christian church hierarchy, at least for a while*. It can also accommodate the medieval tradition that the late sixth-century Brittonic king Peredur was associated with York (see post on Peredur). In this model, Peredur would have been the king of this hypothetical Brittonic kingdom that had developed in or around York. Peredur’s genealogy extends back to Coel Hen, the founder figure of most of the northern Brittonic dynasties.  Generation counting places Coel Hen somewhere in the early to mid fifth century, i.e. in the immediately post-Roman period, a plausible context for the emergence of a ruling dynasty (caveat, as always, that distant founder figures in genealogies may owe as much to imagination as to history).  Peredur’s father Eliffer had the epithet “of the Great Army”, which may imply that he had considerable military power in his time.  These scraps are consistent with a powerful Brittonic kingdom based in York from the immediate post-Roman period up to the later sixth century, though they do not prove it.

This staged transition model is not necessarily inconsistent with the presence of the pagan English cremation cemeteries at York; those only pose a problem if one assumes that populations must be ethnically, culturally and religiously homogeneous. The cremation cemeteries may represent one element of a mixed population living in post-Roman York, perhaps Germanic mercenaries hired by a Brittonic king or people descended from Germanic soldiers in the Late Roman Army, who happened to practice a particular funerary custom.

The transition from such a hypothetical post-Roman Brittonic kingdom to the English kingdom of Deira recorded by Bede could have occurred by conquest, alliance, intermarriage or inheritance, or any combination thereof. Peredur was killed in battle in 580 according to Annales Cambriae, and his son did not (re)claim his inheritance according to the Triads. Peredur’s death is a plausible context for a shift from Brittonic to Deiran control of York. Whether it represents direct military conquest by Deira, or an alliance hastily patched up after a military defeat by a common enemy, or an inheritance (disputed or otherwise) by the English-oriented children of a dynastic intermarriage in the previous generation, is open to interpretation.

A speculative model

I prefer the staged transition model, for several reasons. First, because it seems to me to fit with fragmentation of Roman Britain into a large number of small local polities, each ruled by whoever happened to be in the best position to grasp and maintain power in a given place at the time, which then changed and evolved over the following centuries.  Second, because a Brittonic kingdom based at York fits easily among the known post-Roman kingdoms ruled by kings with Brittonic names elsewhere in the region of what is now northern England/southern Scotland in the sixth century. Third, because it can accommodate the tradition associating Peredur with York (this is hardly strong evidence, since it comes from a medieval romance written centuries later, but it may reflect a genuine tradition).

So my speculative model for the development of post-Roman York sees a Brittonic tribal kingdom established in and around York, initially developing from the local Brittonic aristocracy and/or Roman officials based in York in the early to mid fifth century. By the mid to late sixth century it was a powerful kingdom capable of fighting a battle many miles away at Arthuret, whose rulers were important enough to be mentioned in the Annales Cambriae and were the subject of stories that survive in cryptic references in the Triads and later medieval romance. 

In this speculative model, the early English kingdom of Deira is postulated as separate from Brittonic York, based on the Yorkshire Wolds with an important centre near the extensive early cemetery at Sancton near Market Weighton and extending east to the coast and west towards the River Derwent.  If Soemil’s action that ‘first separated Deur from Berneich’ (see earlier post on Soemil) refers to gaining Deiran independence from a polity based in York, Deira may have initially been a sort of sub-region of Brittonic York, perhaps a land-grant to federate troops employed by the Late Roman Army based at York and/or the postulated Brittonic kingdom that succeeded it.  (More on the possible origins of Deira in a later post). I see Brittonic York and early English Deira as more or less independent neighbouring kingdoms for much of the fifth and sixth centuries, sometimes rivals and sometimes allies, depending on circumstances and the personalities of their respective leaders.  If Deira was initially founded by people who were formally granted land by Roman or post-Roman authorities at York, it is possible that both kingdoms may have shared a sense of Roman heritage (however hazy it may have become over time) and a tradition that they were supposed to co-operate militarily (whether they always did so in practice is a different matter).  Intermarriage could have reinforced such a (hypothetical) tradition, eventually leading to the effective merger of the two kingdoms under a Deiran king after the deaths of Peredur of York and his brother Gwrgi in 580 AD.  Whether this was voluntary, forcible or somewhere in between is open to interpretation. Since Peredur’s son Gwgaun is said in the Triads not to have (re)claimed his inheritance, implying that he was displaced, such a hypothetical merger may not have been entirely voluntary.  I lean to ‘somewhere in between’, with the aristocracy of Brittonic York accepting a Deiran king as the least-bad option available to them in a chaotic situation after their own kings had been killed in battle.  And thus this speculative model arrives at a situation in which York is a royal centre under the control of the early English kings of Deira in the late sixth century, ready to reappear in that guise in the documentary records in 627. 

I need hardly say that this is speculative.


*Even if the Annales Cambriae record means that there was a bishopric in York that came to an end in 501, it does not necessarily mean that Christianity disappeared along with the bishop. Monasticism was a powerful force in western Britain and Ireland in the early medieval period. If a monastery was established in Brittonic York during the fifth century, it may be possible that it had supplanted the local bishopric by 501.



11 December, 2012

Hawk Quest, by Robert Lyndon. Book review

Sphere 2012. ISBN 978-1-84744-497-4. 658 pages.
Hawk Quest is set in 1072 in most of Europe, the North Atlantic, European Russia and Anatolia. All the main characters are fictional.

Vallon, a Frankish outlaw and soldier of fortune, is on his way through the Alps to join the Varangian Guard in Byzantium when he encounters a dying Greek scholar and his assistant, a Sicilian medical student named Hero, who are on their way to England to deliver a ransom demand to the family of a captured Norman knight. After the scholar’s death, Vallon is talked into accompanying Hero to England to deliver the letter.  But the ransom demands a fabulous price, four pure white gyrfalcons, found only in Greenland. Vallon and Hero undertake the impossible quest, each for their own reasons – which have little to do with the captured knight – accompanied by the downtrodden younger step-brother of the captured knight, a German soldier, and an English peasant falconer and his giant dog. Pursuing them and intent on murder is the knight’s elder step-brother, Drogo, who stands to inherit the family estate if the ransom is never delivered. So begins an epic journey to the limits of the known world, from the everlasting ice of Greenland to the ship-destroying Russian rivers and the deserts of Anatolia, a journey on which the travellers find friendship, love, betrayal and heartbreak. Not everyone will reach the end.

Hawk Quest is a classic adventure quest on a grand scale. At over 650 pages, this is a huge book, and the story is big enough to justify the length. The journey itself covers a vast area, from the north of Greenland far beyond the Arctic Circle to Anatolia (modern Turkey). The travellers face just about every imaginable hazard – storm, shipwreck, hunger, cold, marauding Vikings, hostile tribes, cheating merchants, double-crossing officials, bandits, and dangerous wildlife including a polar bear. Not to mention Drogo’s murderous threat, and the perils posed by a beautiful, fiery Icelandic noblewoman, Caitlin, and her violent, selfish brother. Astonishingly for such a long book, the pace never flags and the tale is gripping from end to end.
Part of this is due to the quality of the writing. Lyrical, terse, poignant or humorous as occasion demands, the prose brings the events and landscapes of the journey to vivid life. On occasion I would look up from the book and experience a slight shock on realising that I was not watching an elk in the forests of northern Russia or on a glacier in Greenland. The various obstacles the company have to overcome are explained clearly enough that the reader understands enough to share the experience, so that erecting a ship’s mast or tracking an escaped falcon becomes as thrilling as any battle scene or chase sequence.
The other reason why the book was so compelling was the characterisation, which I thought was outstanding. All the central characters of Vallon’s company are individuals, with their own strengths and weaknesses, their own reasons for joining the expedition, their own hopes and objectives and motivations (sometimes in conflict). All have their own talents and contribute to solving the problems faced by the expedition in their own way. Deep friendships and romantic relationships are forged on the journey.  Even enemies can develop a grudging respect for one another and can co-operate when mutual survival depends on it (even if they promptly revert to type when the immediate danger is over). The variety of individual characters and the interactions between them was the best feature of the novel for me.

Was there anything I didn’t like?  Very little. It took me a while to get into the story, partly because the storytelling in the early chapters has quite a number of flashbacks, which I initially found confusing, and partly because the captured knight’s Norman family and their military retainers all seem so thoroughly unpleasant (Richard, the younger son who joins the expedition, is an exception, but this doesn’t become apparent until much later in the book).  Once the journey gets under way, the book gets into its stride and all these initial problems disappear.  I also found the relationship between Caitlin and Vallon a little puzzling, probably because Caitlin’s thoughts are never shown and Vallon is – understandably, given his history – reluctant to think much about his emotions.
A word of warning: the cover strap-line breathlessly promises “An epic novel of the Norman Conquests”.  ‘Epic’ is entirely justified, but ‘of the Norman Conquests’ is misleading. The Norman conquest of England is at most a minor background event. Readers expecting an adventure involving William, the Battle of Hastings, et al will not find it here.  The title Hawk Quest gives a much more accurate idea of the novel.
A map at the front is invaluable for following the characters on their extraordinary journey. There is no author’s note, just a few comments on the price of gyrfalcons in medieval Europe and the dates of the handful of historical events mentioned in the novel.
Compelling, beautifully written epic quest spanning most of the world known to medieval Europe, with high adventure, convincing characters and a vivid sense of place.

30 November, 2012

Post-Roman York: summary

Late Roman York was an important military, political and ecclesiastical centre in the fourth century.  Anglian York was a royal and ecclesiastical centre in the early seventh century.  What happened in between? 

In this sequence of posts, I have briefly summarised some documentary and archaeological evidence that may help to sketch out a picture of York in the post-Roman centuries: 

I have also discussed the ‘Anglian Tower’, built at an unknown date between late Roman and Anglo-Scandinavian York.
In this post I will try to draw the information together.

York as a political and ecclesiastical centre

One aspect that strikes me is the similarity between York at either end of the gap in the documentary record. 

In Late Roman Britain, York was an important centre of ecclesiastical (a bishop of York attended an international church council in 314), military (base of the Sixth Legion and probably of the high-ranking military commander the Dux Britanniarum), and political (the civilian city on the west bank of the Ouse was a colonia, the highest rank of Roman city) power.

When York next appears in documentary records in the early seventh century, it was an important centre of ecclesiastical (seat of the bishop of York and intended by Pope Gregory to become an archbishopric) and royal (chosen by King Edwin (Eadwine) of Deira/Northumbria as the site for his baptism and that of much of the Northumbrian aristocracy) power.  Although military and political power were (in theory) separate under Roman administration, in early medieval Britain both were effectively subsumed under royal authority, as kings were both political and military leaders. 

So York seems to have held broadly similar status on either side of the three-century gap in the historical record.  This could be pure coincidence.  It is possible that Roman York was to all intents and purposes deserted in the fifth and sixth centuries, and that King Eadwine and Bishop Paulinus established their new church and bishopric in a grass-grown ruin that meant nothing to either of them except that Pope Gregory had specified the location.  Even this minimalist interpretation, however, requires that someone at least knew which particular grass-grown Roman ruin Pope Gregory meant, implying that the name of Roman York had been remembered.

More likely, in my view, is that York remained inhabited in some form throughout, and that its political, military and ecclesiastical roles were either retained – no doubt much modified according to changing circumstances – or at least remembered.

Continued habitation in some form is consistent with the archaeological finds, which (although fragmentary) span the gap in the documentary records between them:
  • in the early fifth century, someone left a large quantity of young pig bones in the headquarters building, perhaps the debris from a Roman-style luxury feast;
  • in the fifth to sixth century, someone was interring their dead in cremation cemeteries at The Mount and Heworth;
  • possibly in the seventh to eighth century, someone was interring their dead in an inhumation cemetery at Lamel Hill;
  • someone deposited an early seventh-century hanging bowl at Castle Yard;
  • at some unknown date between the late fourth and mid ninth centuries, someone built the Anglian Tower;
  • in the late seventh to mid ninth centuries, people were living and working on the production of craft goods at Fishergate, by which date York has reappeared in the documentary records.

The environment of post-Roman York

Such continued habitation would be very different from the densely populated urban environment of Roman York. The complex Roman mercantile economy with its network of specialist producers relied on safe transport over long distances, sufficient stability to make long-term investments such as learning specialist skills worthwhile, and a reliable means of exchange so that specialist producers could obtain the means of living that they did not produce for themselves. The economy was already declining in Roman Britain in the late fourth century, undermined by internal power struggles, political purges, raids, piracy, and successive troop withdrawals as a parade of would-be emperors ‘borrowed’ the British garrisons to have yet another try at grabbing the top job via a military coup. When the Empire officially gave up on Britain, in the shape of Emperor Honorius’ letter telling the civitas governments to look to their own defences, the cessation of Imperial funds would have been one more blow to an economy already struggling. People living in late- and post-Roman York would have had to adapt to increasingly erratic supplies at local markets and a near absence of long-distance trade. Increasingly, if you wanted something you would have to grow it or make it yourself, or make something you could arrange to swap for it with someone nearby.

City populations would probably have been less well equipped than rural populations to weather this change. Rural populations who already grew food for their own use and to sell to the city could still eat if trade collapsed, even if they could no longer buy useful manufactured goods; city populations would have lacked both the skills and the land area to grow enough food to feed themselves.  York may have been better placed than many cities to manage the issue of land availability, if the withdrawal of troops by successive usurpers reduced the city’s population and also freed up vacant land that could be converted to cultivation.  If York was very lucky, it may also have had access to military supplies or supply contracts for a while, which could perhaps have been used to smooth the transition. However, even if York fared better than average (which is speculation on my part), the city population would be expected to decrease from its peak as people moved away or died, and to settle eventually at a density sufficiently low to be roughly self-sustaining on the amount of land available. Post-Roman York is probably best thought of as sparsely populated, with settlement dispersed around the city and perhaps also shifting from place to place to make the best use of available land and surviving structures.

Social structure in post-Roman York

The presence of the elaborate hanging bowl at Castle Yard, and perhaps also the pigs in the headquarters building (if they represent the remains of luxury feasting) suggest that some people in post-Roman York had access to expensive luxury goods, and whoever built the Anglian Tower clearly controlled considerable resources. These are consistent with the presence of local rulers or chieftains, perhaps similar to whoever built the post-Roman timber halls in the old Roman fort at Birdoswald. York may have been a permanent base for a local ruler, or perhaps one of several bases visited on a rotating basis by a ruler with a larger territory (or both at different times).

Whether permanent residents or seasonal visitors, such rulers would presumably have needed a working population in and around York to provide for their needs; people who grew crops on areas of open ground, grazed livestock on grass and scrub among the ruins, scavenged for raw materials to work into craft products for use or exchange, built simple houses against convenient standing walls or where space allowed, interred their dead in cremation or inhumation cemeteries according to religion or family custom, and dumped their rubbish on waste ground or in convenient derelict buildings. Such activity would be consistent with the deposits of ‘dark earth’ that separate Roman from medieval archaeological deposits on some sites in York, which would form as rubbish and perishable materials rotted down.


So my suggested model for post-Roman York is one of a sparse and more or less self-sufficient resident population, producing what they needed to support themselves and a small group of visiting or resident aristocrats. This model offers a mechanism whereby York could have retained its status as a political centre if visited (even if only occasionally) by the local rulers, and as an ecclesiastical centre if some of the population continued to follow Christian beliefs and to maintain links with Christians elsewhere in Britain.

Although this model allows for some continuity of occupation and status between Roman York in the early fifth century and Anglian York in the early seventh century, there is a striking apparent change. In the early fifth century York was controlled by Roman officials. In the early seventh century it was controlled by an early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) king. How might that political transition have come about?  More on that in another post.

13 November, 2012

The Boy With Two Heads, by JM Newsome. Book review

Trifolium Books UK, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9568104-4-1. 364 pages. Also available as an e-book. 

Disclaimer: Trifolium Books UK also publish my novel, Paths of Exile. They didn’t ask me to review The Boy With Two Heads, and although I heard of The Boy With Two Heads through them, I don’t think that has affected my opinion.

The Boy With Two Heads is a time-slip novel for young adults, set in ancient Greece in 432 BC and modern Athens and Cumbria (northern England) in 2010. Phidias, master sculptor, architect and engineer, and his brother Panainos, master painter, are historical figures who play important roles in the historical storyline. The main character in the historical storyline, Themis, a young athlete competing in the ancient Olympic Games, is fictional, as are all the characters in the modern storyline. 

In 432 BC, Themistocles (Themis), a twelve-year-old boy living in Athens, is training to compete in the boxing at the Olympic Games to be held later that year, when an accident leaves him unconscious with a serious head injury. In 2010 AD, Suzanne is a fourteen-year-old girl on a school trip to Athens, with athletic ambitions of her own. A road accident on exactly the same spot as Themis’ accident 2,400 years earlier leaves Suzanne in a coma. Somehow her spirit is drawn back through time to keep Themis alive. With the ‘wrong’ spirit inhabiting his body, Themis has no memory of anything before his accident and has to learn about his life all over again, with occasional bewildering glimpses into 21st-century medical technology. Suzanne, unconscious most of the time, sees glimpses of Themis’ life in visions. Gradually, it becomes apparent that Themis is the target of a mysterious plot against his life. Will he survive to compete at the Olympics?  And will Suzanne’s spirit be released back to her, or will she remain trapped in the past for ever? 

As regular readers may know, I am not well attuned to time-slip novels.  I almost always find that I get interested in one storyline, usually the historical one, at the expense of the other (for example, in The House on the Strand, reviewed here earlier).  Unusually, in The Boy With Two Heads I found the modern storyline as intriguing as the historical one.  I read the book twice, and although I picked up some links and cross-references between the two storylines second time round, I still found myself reading it as two separate narratives. Which is not how time-slip novels are meant to be read, so bear in mind that I won’t have appreciated the time-slip aspect of the novel.

The modern storyline has a powerful sense of suspense – will Suzanne make a recovery?  It brilliantly captures the sudden disorienting shock of a serious accident in a city far from home, and the anxiety and fear felt by Suzanne’s friends and family. The author also makes very effective use of modern communication tools such as blogs and Facebook – second nature to modern teenagers – to tell the modern story from several viewpoints, in an ingenious variation on the epistolary novel. 

The historical storyline forms a larger share of the novel than the modern storyline. It is excellent on historical detail, especially as Themis has lost his memory and has to learn about his life and world all over again, so the reader gets to learn it with him. Anyone looking for a painless way to gain a detailed picture of classical Greek housing, food, clothing, travel, athletic training, religion, bronze casting, and the immensely intricate engineering and artistry that went into creating a giant statue of Zeus with ivory skin, gilded robes and glowing eyes, will love this book.  Not to mention the description of the ancient Olympic Games, with the athletes’ oath, the opening and closing ceremonies, the vast tent city housing the competitors, trainers, spectators and hangers-on, and the athletic competitions themselves, culminating in Themis’ boxing bout.

The pace is steady, and I found less of a sense of suspense in the historical storyline than the modern one, because it was not initially clear to me that there was more at stake than Themis getting his memory back.  Having lost his memory, Themis is not aware that he has qualified to compete in the Olympics, and I did not pick up on the seriousness of the plot against him until well into the novel. 

Characterisation is lively, especially that of the cheerful, rotund and rather irreverent Panainos. There are some neat parallels between young people’s issues and dilemmas in the two storylines – some things don’t change much in 2,400 years.  I have a suspicion that Ancient Greece was probably nastier than its portrayal here, but there are limits on what can reasonably be put into a young adult novel, and in any case an athlete from a prosperous family was probably more sheltered than most.

A list of characters is useful for keeping track of the cast, especially minor figures, and a glossary explains the Greek terms used in the text. Both of these are at the back, so it is worth bookmarking them for easy reference.  There is a map of Athens at the front, and maps of ancient Olympia and the sailing route to it at the back, all useful for following the characters’ movements. A brief Author’s Note outlines some of the historical background, and there is more information on the author’s blog.

Time-slip novel for young adults set at the Olympic Games in ancient Greece in 432 BC and in modern Britain.

11 November, 2012

November recipe: Spiced liver and bacon


Lamb’s liver is nutritious, delicious, quick to cook and (compared with most other types of meat), inexpensive.  I can’t think why it isn’t more popular.  Liver is traditionally partnered with bacon and onions.  This recipe adds garlic and spices for a dish to warm up a cold autumn evening. 
If possible, marinate the liver for several hours or overnight.  I usually put the sliced liver in the marinade while cooking dinner the previous evening and leave it in the fridge overnight.  If you forget or don’t have time, just skip the marinating step.  I think it makes the liver a little bit nicer, but it isn’t essential.  I prefer streaky bacon, but it works just as well with back or collar bacon. 

The spicy fried liver and bacon goes well with a plain green vegetable, such as chard, spinach or green cabbage, and creamy mashed potatoes.  If using chard, the central stalk can be cut out, sliced like celery, and fried along with the onions.

Spiced liver and bacon (serves 2)

5 oz (approx 125 g) lamb’s liver
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) olive oil
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) cider vinegar or wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) milk
1 large onion
3 oz (approx 75 g) smoked bacon
1 large clove garlic
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) paprika
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) ground cumin

Cut the liver into thin slices.  Put the sliced liver in a bowl and add the olive oil, wine/cider vinegar and milk.  Season with salt and black pepper and stir thoroughly.  Cover the bowl and leave to marinate for several hours or overnight, if possible.

Cut the bacon into thin strips.

Peel the onion and slice thinly.  Peel and crush the garlic.

If using chard as the accompanying vegetable, cut out the central stalks and cut into slices.

Fry the sliced bacon in cooking oil over a medium heat for 2-3 minutes to brown. 

Lower the heat and add the sliced onion and chard stalk (if using). Fry over a low heat until soft.

Stir in the crushed garlic and spices.

Add a little more cooking oil, increase the heat to medium, and add the sliced liver and marinade.  Fry for 2-3 minutes until the liver slices are browned.

Serve immediately with creamy mashed potatoes and a green vegetable.

31 October, 2012

Post-Roman York: Fishergate

York was an important military, ecclesiastical and political centre in Late Roman Britain.  In the early seventh century it was under royal control of the Anglian (‘Anglo-Saxon’) kings of Deira, and later in the seventh century it developed into a major ecclesiastical centre and the seat of an archbishopric, a status it holds to this day. 

In between, the historical record is a blank.  There are no definite references to York between the fourth century and the seventh century, although there are one or two snippets whose meaning is less than clear (see earlier post on Post-RomanYork: the documentary evidence for a summary of the documentary records).  Evidence from archaeology provides some clues that may help to fill in the gap. In earlier posts I have discussed the headquarters building, the Anglian cremation cemeteries at The Mount and Heworth, the inhumation cemetery at Lamel Hill, and the possible Anglian cemetery at Castle Yard.
The cemetery evidence reviewed in the previous posts indicates that people were dying and being buried in the region around York in the centuries after the end of Roman administration.  What of the living?  It is a curious feature of early medieval England that the dead are much more visible in archaeology than the living.  The early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) funerary customs of cremation and accompanied inhumation left cemeteries of distinctive pottery cremation urns, brooches, beads and weapons for modern archaeology to find and recognise.  By contrast, early ‘Anglo-Saxon’ settlement sites tend to leave a few post-holes and/or foundation trenches and a scatter of unglamorous domestic  debris such as loom weights, spindle whorls and bits of bone.  Such slight traces are prone to damage by later ploughing or other disturbance, easily missed without skilled excavation, difficult to date and difficult to interpret, particularly in small excavations as the significance of a group of post-holes may only be recognised when they are seen in relation to one another over a wide area.  Even when post-holes and foundation trenches have survived intact and have been excavated over a large enough area to reveal  sufficient of a pattern to be recognised as a building, they preserve at best only the ground plan, which may or may not give much of an idea of the original superstructure (as discussed in an earlier post on the possibilities of timber architecture). Material culture using perishable organic materials such as bone, wood, textiles and leather often does not survive at all – bone disappears in acid soil, wood, textiles and leather decay to nothing except in exceptional circumstances such as a waterlogged site.  Readily dateable artefacts such as coins and pottery are rare or absent until around the beginning of the eighth century, making dating difficult unless sufficient organic material has survived to allow radiocarbon analysis.  So identifying early medieval life is something of a challenge.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence of people living (as well as dying) in the York area in the early medieval period.  The best-known example is the site at 46-54 Fishergate, excavated by York Archaeological Trust in the 1980s (Kemp 1996).

Evidence – 46-54 Fishergate
Fishergate is on the east bank of the River Foss, outside the southern walls of the Roman fortress

The arrow shows the approximate location of 46-54 Fishergate.  Zoom out to see the site in relation to the rest of York.

In 1985-1986, redevelopment of the site of a former glass factory at 46-54 Fishergate provided an opportunity for archaeological investigation, carried out by York Archaeological Trust (Kemp 1996 p5).  Archaeological deposits had survived on about half the site, in the south-eastern corner, underneath a Victorian factory building with shallow foundations (on the rest of the site, modern factory foundations had removed the archaeological deposits).  Excavation revealed traces of ditches, pits and possible structures dating to around the seventh to ninth centuries.
Possible boundary markers
A curving ditch ran from north to south across the site, narrow and shallow (approximately 0.4 m wide and 0.45 m deep) at the north end and becoming broader and deeper towards the south (approximately 2.1 m wide and 0.7 m deep).  The bottom of the ditch contained a layer of silt deposited in standing or slow-moving water, and a notable absence of remains of insect species that normally live alongside human habitation, although conditions would have been expected to preserve them.  This is interpreted as indicating that the ditch was dug, perhaps to mark a boundary, and then the site left uninhabited for a year or more, long enough for a diverse community of invertebrates to become established naturally.

On top of this silty layer, the ditch had filled up with loamy soil interspersed with charcoal, containing animal bones, debris from antler-working, slag, fragments of glass and a 24-cm length of gold wire.  The ditch fill also contained traces of whipworms (human intestinal parasites), indicating the presence of latrine waste.  So the ditch appears to have become a sort of giant linear rubbish pit for domestic and craft-working waste. Part of a comb made from antler, dated to the seventh or eighth century, and a coin dated to around 700-735 were also found in the ditch fill; the coin was much worn, suggesting that it had been in circulation for a long time before it ended up in the ditch (Kemp 1996, p 18-23).
A line of six large pits ran westward from the south end of the ditch.  Three of the pits contained animal bones, antler-working debris and human parasite eggs, and one also contained a bone sword guard dated to the first half of the 8th century. These may be a line of rubbish pits marking a boundary (Kemp 1996 p. 23-24).

Possible structures
To the west of the curving ditch and north of the line of pits, groups of post-bases (shallow post-holes, possibly the foundations for padstones) and foundation slots indicated traces of several possible structures.

Structure 1 was rectangular, 5.5m wide and between 14m and 19m long (the exact length is uncertain because one end of the structure was underneath an unexcavated baulk), oriented with the long axis roughly north-south.  A shallow slot running part way across the structure east-west may be the foundation slot for a beam supporting an internal partition that would have separated off a smaller chamber at the northern end.  No traces of any timbers remained (Kemp 1996 p 27-31).

A second group of post-bases and slots was interpreted as another rectangular structure 5.5m wide and at least 13m long  (only 13m was excavated, so the actual length is unknown), oriented with its long axis east-west (Structure 2). Like Structure 1, there was a crossways slot part-way across the structure, consistent with an internal partition separating off a smaller chamber at one end (in this case the east end).  Four coins dated to approximately 700-735 were found in the fill of the slot, indicating that the timber was removed and the slot filled some time after this period.
A third possible structure was represented by a single line of post-bases with a blank area adjacent; if the post-bases represent one wall and the blank area the building interior , the structure would also have been 5.5 m wide and at least 11m long, with the long axis east-west.  The area where the western wall would have been had been extensively disturbed, which would have destroyed any traces.  However, the area where the east wall would have been had not been so disturbed and no traces of a wall were seen, so this may not be a structure (Kemp 1996 p 34).

Other groups of slots and post-holes may represent the remains of more structures, but the traces were too fragmentary to interpret (Kemp 1996 p 36-37).
All of these possible structures, the curving ditch and the rubbish pits were sealed underneath an extensive charcoal-rich layer, indicating that they all belong to the same period.
Dating evidence is limited.  Some artefacts could date to the mid to late seventh century, and the earliest coins found on the site date to the early eighth century (approximately 700-735). Coins of an earlier type from the period between 670 and 700 were absent. The findings are consistent with a foundation date for the Fishergate settlement in the late seventh or very early eighth century (Kemp 1996 p 66). Pottery types characteristic of the late ninth and tenth century, which are abundant on the Coppergate site elsewhere in York, were almost absent from the Fishergate site, suggesting that the site at Fishergate was not occupied during this period (Kemp 1996 p 83). The settlement may have shifted to Coppergate in the mid ninth century, abandoning the Fishergate site.  It has also been suggested that the site at Fishergate replaced an earlier (mid sixth to mid seventh century) settlement further west on the same gravel moraine at Heslington Hill (Spall and Toop 2008).

Finds from the Fishergate site included ironsmithing slag, debris from copper- and lead-working, woodworking and leatherworking tools, and bones from beaver and pine marten consistent with preparation for furs (Kemp 1996 p 71).Food remains included animal bone (mainly cattle), fish bones, barley, wheat, rye, apples, sloes, hazelnuts, eggs and possibly peas (Kemp 1996 p 71). Sherds of Ipswich-ware pottery indicate contact with East Anglia, and fragments of stone were identified from Cumbria, Wensleydale, Swaledale and the Yorkshire Wolds (Kemp 1996 p 72-73). Lava querns for grinding grain into flour and pottery sherds imported from Germany and northern France/the Low Countries indicate contact across the North Sea (Kemp 1996 p 73).
The Fishergate excavation represents part of a larger settlement, but the size of the settlement is unknown (Kemp 1996 p 75).  It was hypothesised that the settlement could extend along the east bank of the River Foss, perhaps covering 10-25 hectares, maybe as much as 65 hectares, which would be comparable with known eighth-century manufacturing and trading sites at Ipswich, London and Hamwic (near Southampton) (Kemp 1996 p 75-77; Tweddle et al 1999 p 193).  However, recent excavations at Fishergate House and Blue Bridge Lane, just south of the 46-54 Fishergate site, suggest much lower density of occupation in this area, and the Fishergate settlement is now suggested to be much smaller than originally thought, perhaps 4 hectares or so (Spall and Toop 2005).

The debris in the ditch and rubbish pit fills indicates that the 46-54 Fishergate site was concerned with various crafts, including textiles, fur production and the working of leather, wood, bone, antler and various metals including iron, lead and copper.  The length of gold wire (someone must have cursed when they realised they had lost that!) may indicate that precious metals were also worked on the site, perhaps making jewellery.  The pottery and stone from elsewhere in Britain and overseas suggests that Fishergate had regional and international contacts.  The most obvious interpretation is of Fishergate as a centre of manufacturing and trade in the eighth century, a smaller version of the known manufacturing and trading sites (wics) known at Ipswich, London and Hamwic near Southampton (Kemp 1996 p 64). 
The curving boundary ditch, which was dug and the site then apparently left uninhabited for a year or more, may indicate that the Fishergate settlement was deliberately planned and marked out as a site for development before the actual settlement was built.  This would be consistent with some sort of ‘official’ planned development, perhaps by a landowner who marked out the site and then permitted/ persuaded people to move into it and establish craft workshops and dwellings.  The animal bones were less diverse than those typically found on self-sufficient rural village sites such as West Stow, which may suggest that the food supply at Fishergate was restricted, perhaps provided or controlled by a central authority (Kemp 1996 p 74). This is consistent with the possibility that Fishergate was a specialist manufacturing/trading centre controlled by a lord, who provided its inhabitants with access to a restricted range of food, perhaps obtained as food rents from other sites (Kemp 1996 p 74).

York was called Eoforwic or Eoforwiccastre in Old English (Eoforwic was later turned into Jorvik by Norse speakers, and then further shortened over time to eventually become the modern name of York).  The –wic element in place names is commonly associated with sites engaged in trading and/or specialist production, which would fit the evidence from the Fishergate excavation very well.
An account of the Life of St Liudger refers to a colony of Frisian traders based in York in the early eighth century (Kemp 1996 p 65). This would fit well with the suggested foundation date for Fishergate, and the imported material at Fishergate from across the North Sea in Germany, northern France and the Low Countries.

If Fishergate was only about 4 hectares in size as recently suggested, this is much smaller than known –wic sites such as Ipswich or Hamwic (about one-tenth the size).  This may suggest that it was a different type of site – perhaps a foreign enclave, established especially for the early eighth-century Frisian traders mentioned in the Life of St Liudger?  Or perhaps it was intended to be bigger and for some reason did not develop to the same size as Ipswich or Hamwic.  Or the Fishergate site could be one of several sites scattered in and around Roman York.  Various traces of possible structures and pits have been identified in and around the Roman city (Tweddle et al 1999 p 191-199). The traces are generally insubstantial and the date range wide (often no closer than some time between the Roman and Anglo-Scandinavian periods), so it is impossible to say whether these represent other settlements contemporary with the Fishergate site or traces of habitation from different periods, perhaps shifting from place to place.  If there were several small contemporary settlements, could they have added up between them to something resembling a London-sized –wic, but that for some reason was dispersed across multiple sites?

The Fishergate site provides clear evidence for domestic occupation, craft working and regional and international trade on a substantial scale from approximately the late seventh century to approximately the mid ninth century.  By this time York has reappeared in the historical records as a royal and ecclesiastical centre (see earlier post on the documentary evidence) and as the location for a group of Frisian traders mentioned in the Life of St Liudger.  It would make sense for an important royal and ecclesiastical centre to have a trading and manufacturing population nearby to do the work and provide necessary goods.  The levying of tolls and/or taxation on trade and manufacture may have also made a substantial contribution to the economy, especially if Fishergate was part of a larger settlement or a component of a network of related sites dispersed around the environs of the Roman city of York.
Since York evidently had royal and ecclesiastical significance by 627 when King Edwin (Eadwine) of Northumbria chose the city for his baptism and built a church there (Bede Book II Ch. 14), it seems likely that there was also a working population in the area. If the suggested foundation date for Fishergate is correct, such a population was not based there in the early seventh century. If Fishergate was indeed a newly established planned settlement, it may have replaced one or more earlier sites in the vicinity that carried out some of the same sorts of activity. Developing a new site to do something that already happens locally, perhaps on a larger or more organised scale, is an easier proposition than starting from scratch.  The suggested mid-sixth to mid-seventh century settlement at Heslington Hill may represent such an earlier site.  Some of the sites represented by the other fragmentary remains in York that have not been closely dated may also belong to the seventh century, and other sites may have existed that have not (yet) been identified, but (obviously, unless further evidence turns up) this cannot be substantiated*. 

Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people.  Translated by Leo Sherley-Price.  Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Kemp RL. Anglian settlement at 46-54 Fishergate. Council for British Archaeology/York Archaeological Trust, 1996. ISBN 1-872414-70-2.
Spall C, Toop N. Blue Bridge Lane and Fishergate House. Excavation Period 3: Anglian settlement. 2005. Available online
Spall C, Toop N. Before Eoforwic: new light on York in the 6th and 7th centuries. Medieval Archaeology 2008;52. Abstract available online
Tweddle D, Moulden J, Logan E. Anglian York: a survey of the evidence. Council for British Archaeology/York Archaeological Trust, 1999. ISBN 1-902771-06-0.

*Paths of Exile is set in 605-606, much earlier than the date suggested for Fishergate.  My speculation is that ad hoc seasonal trading was already established near the Roman fortress at York long before the Fishergate settlement was founded.  The river and anything that remained of the Roman harbour infrastructure would have offered a convenient site for traders from across the North Sea to arrive in the summer with goods to buy and sell, especially if (as I also speculate) the old Roman fortress was still a royal power centre and thus a likely market for luxury imports.  My speculation  is that the York area also formed a convenient site for local seasonal trading fairs where agricultural and craft produce could be exchanged, the sort of place where farmers and part-time craft-workers might trade a sack of grain for a new cauldron, or a couple of piglets for a dagger, or a length of woven cloth for a colourful new brooch or string of beads, perhaps under the protection of a local lord who could provide some sort of security so that one could be reasonably confident of not being mugged at market (although what happened on the way home may have been another matter).  I have placed Eoforwic in 605 at the site of a (fictional) nobleman’s hall on the opposite side of the River Foss to Fishergate, between the Rivers Foss and Ouse and south of the Roman fortress.