23 December, 2016

December recipe: Stollen


Stollen is a fruit bread from Germany, traditionally associated with Christmas in the same sort of way as mince pies are associated with Christmas in Britain. My recipe is based on one given me by a friend of a friend some years ago, modified in various ways since. I particularly like the approach of filling the bread with a thin spiral layer of marzipan like a Swiss roll, rather than the more usual approach of inserting a cylinder of marzipan like a sausage roll.  I can’t claim credit for that inspired stroke of genius; someone else thought of it before the recipe came to me. Whoever they were, I salute them.

I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Apologies for the long absence of posts here during this year. I hope to be able to post more in the future.

Stollen (makes two)

3 Tablespoons (3 x 15 ml spoons) warm water
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) sugar
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried yeast

9 oz (approx 260 g) plain flour*
1 oz (approx 25 g) light brown soft sugar
4 oz (approx 100 g) butter
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoons) dark rum, or other spirit of your choice**
4 oz (approx 100 g) sultanas
3 oz (approx 80 g) raisins
2 oz (approx 50 g) candied mixed peel
1 egg
Milk to mix (see method below for the quantity)
4 oz (approx 100 g) marzipan
Icing sugar to dredge

Dissolve the teaspoon of sugar in the warm water.  Sprinkle the dried yeast on top and leave in a warm place for about 15 minutes until frothy.

Rub the butter into the plain flour and sugar until it resembles breadcrumbs.

Add the dried fruit, rum and beaten egg.

Stand the bowl on the scales and set the reading to zero. Add the yeast liquid and note the weight, then add enough milk to make the weight up to 110 g. If your mixing bowl won’t stand on your kitchen scales, this is generally about another 60 ml (about 4 Tablespoons) of milk – add it gradually, mixing as you go, and stop when you have a soft dough like a scone dough.

Mix well. It should form a soft dough, like a scone dough. If it is too wet, add a little more flour; if too dry, add a little more milk.

Leave to rise in a warm place for about 1-1.5 hours***.

Divide the dough in half. Flour the work surface, and roll out each half into a rectangle, roughly twice as long as wide.

Divide the marzipan in half and roll out each half into a rectangle a little smaller than the rectangles of dough.

Put a rectangle of marzipan on top of a rectangle of dough, and roll up like a Swiss roll. Damp the edge with water or milk to seal. Pinch the ends together so the marzipan is fully enclosed. Repeat with the other rectangle of dough and marzipan.

Put the two stollen rolls on a greased baking tray and brush with milk or beaten egg.

Leave to rise again in a warm place for about 45 minutes.

Bake in a hot oven at about 220 C for about 30 minutes until the rolls are golden brown.

Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. Dredge with icing sugar

Serve warm or cold, cut in thick slices.

If there is any left over, it will keep for a couple of days in an airtight tin.

The stollen can be frozen. Freeze before dredging with icing sugar.

* Yes, plain flour, not bread flour. Stollen should have a texture more like cake than bread
** If you are organised enough, soak the dried fruit in the rum for a couple of hours beforehand.  I never remember, so I don’t know if it makes any difference
*** If time is very short, you can cheat by omitting the first rise. It’s better if you can do the two rises, but not so much better that you should forego making stollen if there isn’t time for two rises

30 April, 2016

Kilpeck Church: the South Door

The small parish church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck, in Herefordshire, is justly famous for its remarkable Norman carvings.  For example, the Green Man on the right-hand capital of the south door.

Green Man, south door of Kilpeck church
Kilpeck is a small village south-west of Hereford (see map link) below.  The name is recorded as Cilpedec in the Book of Llandaff, meaning ‘the cell of Pedec’.  ‘Cell’ in this context refers to the dwelling of a Christian holy man, presumably the eponymous Pedec. Nothing further is known of Pedec.

Map link: Kilpeck

The first mention of the church is in the Book of Llandaff, written in the early twelfth century, which records that the church of Cilpedec in Erciog,  with all its lands around, was given to the Bishop of Llandaff in around 640 AD. 

Erciog, also called Erchyng or Archenfield, was an independent early medieval kingdom located in approximately what is now the southern part of Herefordshire. In Domesday Book, compiled for William the Conqueror in 1185, the area was still considered Welsh and subject to Welsh laws, and it remained in a Welsh church diocese (first Llandaff, later St David’s) until the nineteenth century.

Kilpeck was given by William the Conqueror to a Norman lord after the Norman Conquest, and the son of this Norman lord, called Hugh de Kilpeck, built the present church in about 1140. The exact date is unknown, but it was given to the Abbey of Gloucester in 1143 and so was presumably built before then. It presumably replaced whatever earlier building was on the site when it was given to the Bishop of Llandaff, perhaps a chapel or a hermit’s cell.

It is a small church with a chancel, nave and semi-circular apse at the east end.

Kilpeck Church from the south west

The most spectacular feature of the church is the magnificently carved south door.

South door of Kilpeck Church
The two outer columns are carved with twining snakes, each snake biting the next one’s tail.
Snakes on the south door of Kilpeck Church, right-hand column

The guidebook says the snakes might illustrate the defeat of the dragon of evil, or that they might represent the continuous cycle of life as the snake can be considered to be ‘reborn’ each year when it sheds its skin.  They remind me of the intertwining serpents in Norse/Viking jewellery. In the twelfth century the Normans were not that many generations on from the Norse adventurers led by Hrolf (also called Rolf, or Rollo) who founded the dukedom of Normandy in 911, and I wonder if they retained some of the artistic tastes of their ancestors.

The inner column on the left shows two warriors standing one above the other.  They seem to be wearing pointed caps, quilted jackets, long trousers and soft-looking shoes.

Warrior on the south door of Kilpeck Church, left-hand column
This costume does not look obviously similar to the Normans on the Bayeux Tapestry, with their mail shirts and helmets with nose guards. It is not known exactly what the warrior figures represent – perhaps the equipment of the local fighting men.

The South Door is not the only example of carving at Kilpeck, which also boasts a series of astonishingly well-preserved corbels. More on the corbels in another post.

The Parish Church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck, 2000. Guidebook available at the church.

31 March, 2016

Over the Wine-Dark Sea, by H. N. Turteltaub. Book review

Tom Doherty Associates, 2001. ISBN 0-312-87660-2. 381 pages.

Over the Wine-Dark Sea is set in the Eastern Mediterranean in spring to autumn of 310 BC. According to the Historical Notes, one of the two central characters, Menedemos, is a historical figure, as is Antandros of Syracuse who makes a brief appearance. All the other characters who appear in the novel are fictional.

In spring 310 BC, Menedemos and his cousin Sostratos, two young merchants from Rhodes, are eager to put to sea for their summer trading trip to Great Hellas, the Greek colonies and city-states of Sicily and mainland Italy. Their ship, the Aphrodite, jointly owned by their fathers, is a merchant galley with forty rowers as well as a sail for propulsion. Unlike the broad sail-only trading ships, the Aphrodite does not need to wait for a favourable wind; the rowers can take her wherever her captain wants to go. But this also means she is expensive to run, as the crew have to be paid wages, and her cargo space is limited. So the Aphrodite carries luxury goods, perfume, silk, fine wine, dye, papyrus, ink – and peafowl, exotic birds from India that have never before been seen in Great Hellas. Menedemos and Sostratos will need their wits and a shrewd eye for a deal to cover their costs and bring back a profit. But as well as business risks and the ever-present danger of pirates and bad weather, several wars are raging along the Aphrodite’s intended route: between Syracuse and Carthage; between an obscure Italian tribe called the Romans and their neighbours to the south; and between the various generals who inherited parts of the empire of Alexander the Great after his death a decade ago and are now fighting each other in Egypt, mainland Greece, Asia Minor and the seas in between. One miscalculation could see Menedemos, Sostratos and all their crew dead or for sale in a slave market – and on top of this, there is Menedemos’ liking for other men’s wives...

Over the Wine-Dark Sea is a highly entertaining travelogue of the varied cultures and geography of the Eastern Mediterranean in antiquity. It doesn’t really have a plot as such – Menedemos and Sostratos travel from one island or port to the next, buy things, sell things, get into and (hopefully) out of trouble, and hope to return home safely and profitably. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing (after all, the same sort of comment could be made about The Odyssey). Their journey is colourful and varied enough, and the cousins’ contrasting characters amusing enough, to make Over the Wine-Dark Sea great fun to read. The cousins’ bickering is often witty, and there are a few knowing jokes, like the various Hellenes who solemnly opine that the obscure barbarian tribe called the Romans will never amount to anything much. The difficulties of managing a peacock, five peahens (and in due course a multitude of chicks) in the cramped confines of the ship form a running joke for most of the book.

Over the Wine-Dark Sea is also immensely informative about the ancient world. Each of the ports, harbours and towns is described, often with snippets of its history and layout. Different types of ships are described and named, along with their development over time and the various uses for the different types. Hellenic social conventions and customs are described and shown in detail; haggling over a business deal; the correct format for a symposion (a drinking party for wealthy men, a sort of cross between a dinner party and a stag do); the names of different courses in a meal; conventions about which hand to eat with and how many fingers to use for different types of food; sports activities at the gymnasion. All of these are restricted to men, of course. The confined life imposed on women is acknowledged (and Sostratos is sensitive enough to feel just a little bit uncomfortable about it occasionally), but women don’t get much of a role except as possessions for men to squabble over.

Both Menedemos and Sostratos are familiar with Homer and like to relate the places they see to the poetry – could the whirlpool they see in the Straits of Messina be the original Charybdis, could this or that island be where Odysseus encountered the Sirens or the Cyclops? Sostratos also has aspirations to be a historian and likes to collect obscure facts, such as two different theories about how the town of Rhegion got its name, or the correct way to wear a toga. All this information has an undeniable tendency to slow down the plot, and I can imagine that some readers might find it annoying, although I quite liked these obscure excursions. For readers who want to imagine what it might have been like to trade luxury goods around the Aegean and Italy in the ancient world, what items came from where, and how money and coinage worked, there is much to enjoy.

The book is written throughout in straightforward modern English (with American spellings). Some of the different cultures are given different accents or dialects to distinguish them from one another; one region of Greece drops ‘H’s, Macedonia has an archaic dialect, and a slave girl kidnapped from Cisalpine Gaul in the distant north of Italy is given an Irish accent and turn of phrase to emphasise her foreignness.

A brief Historical Note outlines the historical events that form the background to Menedemos’ and Sostratos’ journey, and there is a very useful note at the front about weights, measures and units of money. This is well worth bookmarking, as the characters refer to these units constantly and it is very useful to be able to flip back quickly to see whether a minai is a small fortune or small change. An excellent map at the front is very useful for following the Aphrodite’s journey.

Colourful and entertaining account of the episodic adventures of two young traders shipping luxury goods around the Eastern Mediterranean in 310 BC. 

26 February, 2016

The battle of Catraeth: other evidence and interpretation

The heroic poem Y Gododdin is one of the longest and most famous texts in medieval Welsh. It was written down in the kingdom of Gwynedd in North Wales in a thirteenth-century manuscript, but the spellings in one of the two versions suggest that it may be several centuries older. It consists mainly of a series of elegies for warriors who feasted at the court of Din Eidyn (modern Edinburgh) before setting out to fight at a place called Catraeth where many, perhaps most, of them were killed. Where might Catraeth have been?


The evidence from the poem Y Gododdin was described in the previous post.  

Canu Taliesin

A place called ‘Catraeth’ is also mentioned in the Canu Taliesin poetry praising Urien, king of Rheged. For more information about Urien, see my earlier post 'Urien Rheged'.

The men of Catraeth arose with the dawn, 
About the Guledig, of work a profitable merchant.
This Urien, without mockery is his regret.

--The Battle of Gwen Ystrat, translation available online

I saw the ruler of Cathraeth beyond the plains

 --The Spoils of Taliesin, translation available online

In the ‘Battle of Gwen Ystrat’, Urien is described as ‘Guledig’, meaning something like leader or overlord.  The men of Catraeth appear to be under his command, although the poem does not say that the battle in question (‘Gwen Ystrat’, which translates as something like ‘white valley’ or ‘fair valley’) was being fought at Catraeth. In ‘The Spoils of Taliesin’, Urien is clearly described as the ruler of Catraeth. Although Taliesin refers to Urien’s domain as ‘Rheged’, the location of Rheged itself has not been identified more precisely than somewhere in what is now northern England and/or southern Scotland. For more information on the possible location of Rheged see my earlier posts here and here. I like the idea that Rheged was located around Carlisle, the Lake District and the Solway, but other interpretations are equally possible.

Place names

There is no modern place with a name that can be definitively and uniquely identified as Catraeth.

The most common suggestion for the location of ‘Catraeth’ is modern Catterick, located at the eastern end of the strategic Roman road that crosses the Pennines through the Stainmore Pass or Stainmore Gap (the modern A66 road follows much the same route as its Roman predecessor). Bede, writing in the eighth century, refers to it as ‘Cetreht’. The Roman name of the settlement at the site of modern Catterick Bridge was Cataractonium. The English Place-Name Society website suggests that it originally derived from a Brittonic name ‘Caturatis’ meaning ‘fortification’, which was (mis)interpreted by the Romans as the Latin ‘Cataracta’, meaning ‘waterfall’. (Misunderstanding place names on the grounds that they sound like a word you recognise evidently has a long history).

Tim Clarkson argues that although ‘Catraeth’ could be an earlier form of the modern name ‘Catterick’, this is not the same thing as proving that they refer to the same place (Clarkson 2010, p. 106). There may have been many other places with now-lost names that could have given rise to ‘Catraeth’, and the poem may refer to one of these.

Another possibility occurs to me, and that is that the name ‘Catraeth’ looks as though it might be composed of the elements ‘Cat’, meaning ‘battle’, and ‘Traeth’, meaning ‘strand’ or ‘shore’. I don’t know enough about etymology to know whether this could be a real possibility. If it is, then the ‘Catraeth’ of the poem might not be a place name at all, but a description of the event commemorated – ‘the battle on the shore’. In which case, trying to identify it from modern or recorded place names might be impossible.


The battle of Catraeth was fought between warriors from Edinburgh and enemies identified variously as ‘Deiran’, ‘Saxons’ or ‘Lloegr’s mixed hosts’ in the more archaic ‘B’ version of Y Gododdin. The ‘A’ version adds two mentions of Bernicia, one of which seems to bracket Bernicia alongside the Gododdin rather than as enemies (see previous post 'Catraeth: Y Gododdin').

The terms referring to Saxons or Lloegr are not geographically precise enough to be much help in identifying the location of the battle, as they could refer to groups of people in Britain anywhere from Northumbria to Wessex. The term ‘Deira’ is much more geographically precise, as Deira is quite securely located somewhere in the region of modern Yorkshire. For this reason, I would focus on ‘Deira’ as the most useful clue to the enemy, which in turn gives a possible clue to the location.

Catterick Bridge is in modern North Yorkshire, and therefore either within or close to the territory of sixth-century Deira (as usual, the exact boundaries of Deira are not known). It is therefore a plausible location for a battle in which Deira was one of the sides (although I agree with Tim Clarkson that it is not proven).

Furthermore, Catterick Bridge is on a major north-south Roman road (Dere Street), at a river crossing (the Swale), and close to the junction with the major east-west Roman road across Stainmore Pass. River crossings are common battle sites, and the Roman road network would have been obvious routes for moving armies across country. Catterick is approximately 150-170 miles from Edinburgh, depending whether you take the shorter route over the Cheviot hills or the longer route via the coast. Although this is a long way, it is within the known campaigning range of early medieval armies (see earlier post on campaigning ranges). Given that armies from Northumbria are known to have fought near Chester and in Pictland, and that an army from Gwynedd and the West Midlands invaded and occupied Northumbria, it does not seem at all unreasonable that an army from Edinburgh could have fought at Catterick Bridge.

To get from Edinburgh to Catterick Bridge, the warriors in the poem would have had to cross or skirt the territory of Bernicia, which in the late sixth century was ruled by the aggressive and militarily successful king Aethelferth. Bernicia was probably Gododdin’s closest territory ruled by an English king. However, Catwallaun of Gwynedd had no problem crossing the territory of English Mercia when he invaded Northumbria in 633, and indeed the English king of Mercia was his ally in the campaign. I see no reason why the Gododdin could not have had a similar arrangement with Bernicia as Catwallaun had with Mercia a few decades later. Bernicia could have been an active ally of Gododdin during the campaign, as Mercia was to Gwynedd, which would be consistent with the reference to ‘the army of Gododdin and Bernicia’ in stanza A-47. Or it may have played a more passive role, simply allowing the Gododdin warriors to pass unhindered.

The reference in Canu Taliesin to Urien as ‘ruler of Catraeth’ is more problematic for the Catterick Bridge location. Although Rheged’s location is uncertain, the likely areas are on the western coast of Britain roughly from Strathclyde to Lancashire. Catterick Bridge is distinctly on the eastern side. I don’t think any likely location for Rheged can easily be made to include Catterick Bridge. My best suggestion is that if Urien was a ruler of Catterick Bridge it would be in the sense of being some sort of overlord. This might reflect anything from outright military conquest, through some kind of tribute-paying client relationship (with varying degrees of asymmetry and coercion), to an amicable alliance by blood or marriage. The location of Catterick Bridge near the junction between Dere Street and the main trans-Pennine Roman road over Stainmore gives it obvious strategic importance. The ruler of a kingdom based around the western end of the Stainmore Pass road may well have wanted to control the other end of the pass as well. Historia Brittonum makes it clear that Urien was a powerful military leader, so outright conquest may be possible. Or, if there was a post-Roman Brittonic kingdom based around York (see my earlier series of articles on post-Roman York), Catterick Bridge may well have been part of its territory. Catterick Bridge is in the Vale of Mowbray, and only about 40 miles from York along the main north-south Roman road of Dere Street. Urien shares a (claimed) descent from Coel Hen with Peredur, tenuously associated with York (see post on Peredur), and it may be possible that Urien had some sort of claim to authority in the York area, including Catterick, based on this shared descent. Or, more prosaically, Taliesin may just have been flattering his patron by giving him an additional title.

If this mention of Urien as ‘ruler of Catraeth’ means that Catraeth was in the territory of Urien’s kingdom of Rheged, then either Rheged was in Yorkshire rather than in the west (which seems most unlikely to me, see the post on Rheged), or ‘Catraeth’ was not at Catterick Bridge. Tim Clarkson argues a case for locating ‘Catraeth’ somewhere much further north, perhaps in the valley of the River Tweed or in Lothian (Clarkson 2010, p. 108-9), and this is certainly a possibility. It is a long way from the territory of the Deiran enemies identified in the poem (just as Catterick Bridge is a long way from the territory of the Gododdin warband), but there is no obvious reason why the Deirans should not have been just as capable of long-distance campaigning as the Gododdin.

For my part, I prefer the traditional location of ‘Catraeth’ at Catterick Bridge. 

The main reasons for this are:
  • it has a name that could be derived from Catraeth;
  • it seems a likely sort of site for a battle, since it is on an important Roman road and at a river crossing;
  • it is in or close to the known location of Deira, and therefore a plausible location for a battle in which Deira was one of the sides;
  • although it is a long way from Edinburgh, early medieval armies are recorded by Bede as campaigning over similarly long distances, and I don’t think there is any obvious reason why the army of Gododdin should have been any less capable than its approximate contemporaries in Gwynedd or Northumbria.
I think the main difficulty with locating ‘Catraeth’ at Catterick Bridge is Taliesin’s line describing Urien as ‘ruler of Catraeth’. I’ve suggested above that this could be explained by some sort of overlordship over an area outside his core territory, but I will readily admit that this involves a certain amount of hand-waving. However, most explanations are likely to, given the shortage of evidence.

So I chose to place ‘Catraeth’ at Catterick Bridge in Paths of Exile. I don’t claim that this is a proven location; however, I think it is reasonably plausible. Other explanations are possible.

Clarkson T. The Men of the North. Birlinn, 2010. ISBN 978-1-906566-18-0
Canu Taliesin, The Battle of Gwen Ystrat, translation available online
Canu Taliesin, The Spoils of Taliesin, translation available online
English Place-Name Society website, Catterick

Map links