29 February, 2012

February recipe: Lamb and chick pea curry

Spices and root vegetables make this simple curry a warming winter meal. It can be made with lamb or venison, and the vegetables can be varied according to taste and availability. If using dried chick peas, remember to soak them in advance. The curry can be frozen, so you can make a double quantity and freeze half for an instant ready-meal later.

Serves 4

Lamb and chick pea curry

4 oz (approx 125 g) chick peas
8 oz (approx 250 g) lamb (or venison), cubed
1 onion
6 oz (approx 150 g) cooking apple
1 lb (approx 450 g) vegetables (swede*, parsnip, turnip, leek, celery)
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) ground cumin
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) ground ginger
2 teaspoons (2 x 5 ml spoon) ground coriander
4 oz (approx 100 g) chopped tomatoes
2 oz (approx 50 g) sultanas or raisins
Approx. 0.5 pint (approx 250 ml) water or stock

Soak the chick peas overnight in cold water. Rinse the soaked chick peas, put in a saucepan with plenty of water, bring to the boil and simmer for 1 – 1.25 hours until cooked. Drain.

Cut the lamb or venison into pieces about 1.5 cm (approx 0.5”) cubed.

Peel and chop the onion. Peel, core and chop the cooking apple. Peel and chop the vegetables. Peel the garlic.

Fry the lamb or venison in cooking oil over a medium heat until browned.

Add the chopped onion, apple and other vegetables and fry gently for a few minutes until starting to colour. Stir in the crushed garlic.

Stir in the spices and mix well. Add the chopped tomatoes, cooked and drained chick peas and dried fruit. Pour in the water or stock, season with salt and black pepper, and bring to the boil.

Simmer over a low heat approx 1 – 1.25 hours until the meat and vegetables are cooked.

Serve with rice and mango chutney.

Can be frozen.

*Short for ‘swedish turnip’. This is the English name; in Scotland the vegetable is called ‘neep’ (as in the dish ‘neeps and tatties’), and in North America I think it is called ‘rutabaga’.

23 February, 2012

Old English personal names

Old English personal names look unfamiliar to modern eyes, because only a few examples remain in common use today, mostly in their Middle English spellings (for example, Edward, Edmund, Alfred, Edith). However, Old English personal names follow a fairly straightforward pattern.

Two-element names

Old English seems to have had a stock of words that were considered suitable for forming names, often words that had positive connotations such as happiness, riches, strength, courage, power, wisdom, security, nobility and so on. Perhaps the idea was to bring good fortune to the recipient, or perhaps it was just more appealing to call a baby something nice.

Old English personal names are commonly formed by combining two components from this stock of name-words.

  • Some name elements were used only for the first part of a name, e.g. Aethel- (noble, royal), Ead- (happy, rich, fortunate)

  • Some name elements were only used for the second part of a name, e.g. –weard (guardian, protector)

  • Some name elements could be used in either position, e.g. ric (strong), swith (strong), wine (friend), wald (power), here (army), hild (battle), burh/burg (stronghold), raed (counsel, wisdom)

The second element was usually a word of masculine gender in men’s names and feminine gender in women’s names, but not always.

Single-element names

Single-element names are based on a single word, rather than a combination of two. Masculine names commonly end with –a, e.g. Penda, Adda, Imma. This can be confusing to speakers of modern English, as we are used to the Latin convention of –a denoting a feminine ending. This confusion is reinforced by later Latinised forms of Old English women’s names such as Hilda (from Old English Hild). In Old English a single-element name ending in –a is more likely to be a man’s name.

Some two-element names can be shortened to single-element names, e.g. names such as Cuthbert or Cuthwulf could be shortened to Cutha. Hild may be a shortened form of a two-element name (see below).

Single-element names tend to be less common in the written sources than two-element names. Two-element names may have been more popular among the upper classes, and to have become more common over time (although caution is in order, given the scarcity of early sources).

Family connections – alliteration

There were no surnames in Old English. People were identified by a single personal name. Family connections could be signalled by alliteration, i.e. by choosing names within a family that all began with the same letter. Several examples of this can be seen in royal genealogies:

  • The seventh-century king of Mercia, Penda, had a father called Pubba or Pybba (Historia Brittonum ch. 60) and a son called Peada (Bede Book III ch. 21);

  • The seventh-century Northumbrian prince Hereric had two daughters called Hild and Hereswith (Bede Book IV ch. 23);

  • The genealogy of the West Saxon kings in the Anglian Collection lists a succession of eight kings with names beginning with C-, Cerdic, Creoda, Cynric, Caewlin, Cuthwine, Cuthwulf, Ceolwald, Cenred;

  • In the ninth and tenth centuries, the West Saxon king Aethelwulf had sons called Aethelbald, Aethelbert, Aethelred and Alfred (later The Great); Aethelred had sons called Aethelwold and Aethelhem; Alfred had sons called Edward and Aethelweard and daughters called Aethelflaed, Aelfthryth and Aethelgifu; Aethelflaed had a daughter called Aelfwyn (Asser, Life of Alfred Part II; Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 919 AD).

Family connections – common name element

Another way to indicate family connections was by using one of the elements of the father’s and/or mother’s name as an element in the child’s name. Where the shared name element was the first one, it would automatically produce alliteration as well. Again, several examples can be seen in royal genealogies:

  • The seventh-century Northumbrian prince Hereric was married to a lady named Breguswith. They had two daughters called Hild and Hereswith (Bede Book IV ch. 23). Hereswith has a name combining the second element of her mother’s name (-swith) and the first element of her father’s name (Here-). It is quite possible that Hild was originally called Hildiswith (taking the second element of her mother’s name and a first element that alliterated with her father’s name), which was shortened to Hild for some reason;

  • The seventh-century kings of Northumbria were (successively) the brothers Oswald and Oswy, who also had other brothers called Oswine, Oswudu, Oslac and Offa (Historia Brittonum ch. 57). Oswy had a daughter called Osthryth (Bede Book III ch. 11);

  • The seventh-century king of East Anglia, Raedwald, had a son called Eorpwald (Bede Book II ch. 15), whose name contains the same second element as his father’s name (-wald);

Some name elements were extremely widespread over a long period of time. For example, Aethel- names appear in the royal family of Kent in the sixth century (Aethelbert, Aethelburh) (Bede Book II ch. 9), Northumbria in the seventh century (Aethelferth) (Bede Book I ch. 34), Mercia in the seventh century (Aethelred) (Bede Book III ch. 11), Wessex in the ninth and tenth centuries (see above), and East Anglia in the seventh century (Aethelwald, Aethelthryth) (Bede Book III ch. 22; Book IV ch. 19). It is perhaps not surprising that a name element meaning ‘noble, royal’ was so popular among families who claimed royal status.

Sometimes both alliteration and common name elements seem to be in use in the same family. For example, the seventh-century king of East Anglia, Raedwald, had one son called Eorpwald (Bede Book II ch. 15), who has the same second name-element as his father, and another son called Raegenhere (Bede Book II ch.12), whose name alliterates with that of his father. If we did not have Bede’s History to tell us that both Raegenhere and Eorpwald were the sons of Raedwald, there would be nothing in their names to connect them with each other. Whether the different name patterns reflected different family connections (for example, perhaps Raegenhere and Eorpwald were the children of two different marriages), family traditions (Raedwald had a brother called Eni; perhaps there was a tradition of having names in R- and E- in each generation), or just resulted from idiosyncrasy, is open to interpretation.

In Paths of Exile, I sometimes used alliteration and common name elements when choosing names for the fictional characters to signal family relationships (obviously, I retained the names of historical figures). For example, Eadwine’s name is recorded, and the name of his nephew Hereric is recorded, but Hereric’s parents are unknown. I chose the name Eadric for the fictional character of Hereric’s father, Eadwine’s elder brother in the novel, because the two name elements in Eadric link to the two known names (Ead- shared with Eadwine, and –ric shared with Hereric). I chose the name Heledd for Hereric’s mother, a fictional princess of the neighbouring Brittonic kingdom of Elmet, because it alliterated with Hereric’s name. Hereric’s name is thus imagined as alliterating with his mother’s name and sharing a second name-element with his father’s name. (It is, of course, entirely possible that Hereric was the son of a sister of Eadwine and a man called H-something or Here-something. I picked the first combination for storytelling reasons).

Anglian Collection, available online
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online
Asser, Life of Alfred, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Historia Brittonum, available online

15 February, 2012

Hoar frost

Jack Frost displaying his artistic talents. Very cold weather with clear skies and no wind allows lovely feathery hoar frost crystals to grow on surfaces exposed to the air, such as plant stems.

Hoar frost on plant stems at the base of a hedge...

... and on an isolated plant at a field edge

Close-up of feathery ice crystals.

04 February, 2012

King of Kings, by Harry Sidebottom. Book review

Penguin, 2010, ISBN 978-0-141-03230-6. 469 pages.

Second in the Warrior of Rome series, King of Kings follows on from Fire in the East (reviewed here earlier). Emperor Valerian, the Imperial officials Macrianus the Lame and his two sons, and the Persian ruler Shapur are historical figures. Ballista, the central character, is based on a historical figure about whom little is known. Other major characters are fictional. King of Kings is set in 256–260 AD, in the Eastern Mediterranean and what is now Syria.

Marcus Clodius Ballista, originally a noble hostage from the northern tribe of the Angles and now a senior Roman army officer, was one of the few survivors of the siege of Arete (recounted in Fire in the East). Bringing disastrous news to the Imperial court at Antioch, Ballista falls foul of the sinister official Macrianus the Lame and his slimy son Quietus, as well as the arrogant patrician Acilius Glabrio who blames Ballista for his brother’s death at Arete. The Empire is beset with difficulties, many of which are blamed on the cult of Christianity, and in the east the powerful Persian king Shapur is threatening war. But the greatest threat comes from within Rome itself...

King of Kings picks up at the moment where Fire in the East left off, with Ballista and his companions fleeing for their lives from the sack of Arete. The opening sequence gives a good idea of what to expect; there is no shortage of military adventure and gruesome battle scenes in King of Kings, from pirate raids to full-scale campaigns against the Persians. Political intrigue plays a larger role in King of Kings than in the earlier novel, as Ballista has to deal with fanatical Christians in Ephesus and the back-stabbing (literally as well as metaphorically) machinations of the Imperial court. A few quiet periods between assignments, when Ballista is out of Imperial favour, provide glimpses of Ballista’s home life, with his intelligent and politically astute upper-class Roman wife Julia and their two adored children.

Ballista’s position as an outsider to Imperial Rome comes over strongly in King of Kings. As well as the impenetrable etiquette and protocol of the court itself, he also finds Roman domestic customs alien and sometimes disturbing. Many among the Imperial court look down on Ballista as a barbarian, and even Julia insults him as such during a marital row. The closest members of Ballista’s household are also foreigners – Calgacus, the old Caledonian slave from Ballista’s northern homeland; Demetrius, the intellectual Greek secretary with a weakness for the occult; and Maximus, or Muirtagh of the Long Road, the tough Irish ex-gladiator bodyguard. For all that Ballista holds a senior position within Roman society as a high-ranking military officer, he is not part of it. As an outsider, he (and therefore the reader) is well placed to observe the flaws in the Imperial system, with power concentrated in the person of the increasingly infirm Valerian – a sympathetic, if rather pathetic, figure – and consequently vulnerable to misuse by corrupt officials who manipulate the Emperor for their own ends. Indeed, the main villain is so obviously evil that he is almost a cartoon caricature, cackling over the hero’s powerlessness while explaining the next step in his nefarious plan, which is all very well in a Bond film but I found it a bit disappointing here. If the portrayal bears any resemblance to reality, no wonder Rome managed to get itself into the mess of the ‘Third-Century Crisis’.

As with Fire in the East, King of Kings doesn’t so much reach an end as take a brief pause for breath before Ballista’s adventures continue in the next instalment. I am finding the series faintly reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, partly because of Ballista’s position as an outsider, partly because of the frequent and dramatic battle scenes, and partly something about the style (it’s a toss-up at present whether the no-nonsense Irish bodyguard Maximus reminds me more of Russell Crowe in Gladiator or Sergeant Patrick Harper). On reaching the Historical Afterword at the back, it turns out that one of the Sharpe echoes was intentional.

The narrative is told in third person, mainly by Ballista but also by other characters as occasion dictates, so the reader sometimes knows things that Ballista doesn’t know. The style is mostly straightforward modern prose, liberally sprinkled with archaic terms (explained in a glossary at the back, although I found most of them could be worked out from context), and with a fair helping of modern four-letter words. I found the pace rather uneven, speeding along during the fight sequences and then seeming to drag during the episode of persecuting Christians in Ephesus. This may be intentional, as Ballista himself is much more at home with military command than with a civilian governor’s job. I wonder if the Ephesus episode was covered at such length because it has some wider significance, perhaps setting up for something in a later book?

The Historical Afterword at the back outlines some of the history underlying the novel, and a map at the front is useful for following Ballista’s journeys. A list of characters at the back may also be helpful for keeping track of who is who, although I never needed to refer to it.

Military adventure, gruesome battles and political intrigue as the third-century Roman Empire clashes with the mighty Persian Empire in the Near and Middle East.