Friday, 31 July 2015

The Senses in Anglo-Saxon England

This piece originally appeared on

The Senses in Anglo-Saxon England

A friend told me recently that he had been reading about the Roman occupation of Britain and he asked me why, when the abandoned towns and villas were still there, did the Angles and Saxons not move into them?

 We know they were still there because they were given ‘English’ names and yet archaeological evidence points to the Germanic settlers building their own wooden houses and villages, in some cases very near to the abandoned buildings. Did they not have the skills required to restore and maintain these buildings?

 Reconstructions, such as those at West Stow, and the excavation of great halls such as Yeavering, show that they were not incompetent builders. Tacitus said that none of the Germanic tribes on the continent lived in walled cities, so it’s more likely that the Anglo-Saxons preferred to live in buildings that kept them feeling close to the natural world. So how did that affect the way they communicated? What was sound like for them?

 The acoustic properties of wooden buildings offer opportunities for intimate conversation. Sound will fall away, muffled by the absorbent materials in the building. Living communally provides companionship and a strong sense of belonging, but it must have been a boon to be able to conduct private conversations if the need or urge arose. Stone buildings have large spaces where sound echoes and resonates.

 Towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period these cavernous buildings were being built and we have evidence that people were exploiting this, to great effect. The Winchester Troper dates from around AD1000 and includes possibly the oldest written music, designed to be performed in Winchester Cathedral. A sample can be heard on YouTube.

The Anglo-Saxon period covers more than half a millennium and by the end of the period many folk were living in towns rather than small hamlets, but it has been estimated that in early modern England, sounds above 60 decibels were rare; it is safe to assume, therefore, that this applies equally to the early medieval period.

 The loudest natural sound was probably thunder, followed by animal noises. Of man made noises, in the earlier period, musical sounds would have been produced from lyres and wooden flutes. Louder sounds would be made by timber construction, the metallic clanging emanating from the smithy, and explosions. Not gunpowder, but the ignition of flour dust in mills.

 As Kevin Leahy, author of Anglo-Saxon Crafts, explained to me, when I was looking for a plausible way for one of my novel’s characters to make murderous mischief: “The suspension of fine flour in air is a highly explosive mixture which could be set off by a candle or a bearing of [a] wheel running hot. I suppose an Anglo-Saxon water powered mill is less likely to run away than a wind-mill (supposedly introduced during the Crusades) but in any event the explosive mixture would have been present.”

 As mentioned above, there were no windmills, but the sound of the water mill wheels would have been familiar to most - a man was considered to be a wealthy thegn if he had a water mill of his own and a fine example of a water mill has been excavated at Tamworth.

 With the absence of modern background noise, the sound of birdsong would have been prominent and the sounds of domestic animals, the bark of a dog, the sound of cattle or sheep, would have been identifiable, not just to the owners, but to all those who lived nearby.

 As for the sense of touch, no doubt wood and metal felt the same 1000 years ago as they do now. The Anglo-Saxons would also have been familiar with the texture of enamel, which they worked into their jewellery, Cloisonne-style, and coloured pot and glass beads.

 We know that they combed their hair with combs made from antler bone, which must have felt a little different from our plastic ones.

 As for clothing, a well-known author once said to me that she assumed that the Anglo-Saxons just wore sacks tied round the middle. Well yes, let it be said that their costumes were not as elaborate as those of later periods. The simplest weave they produced was a plain, or ‘tabby’ weave which varied in quality from coarse (yes, that’s the sacking!) to very fine fabrics including not just wool, but linen too: at Sutton Hoo, the remains of a fine linen pillowcase were found.

 There were also patterned twills, made using a more complex weaving sequence and used for luxury fabrics. Sometimes they employed a method called ‘pile-weaving’ where loops were inserted during the weaving process, resulting a sort of ‘shaggy’ material which was occasionally used for cloaks.

 So they were familiar with a number of different textures, and, though it was generally imported early in the period, the richer folk knew what silk felt like. King Oswald of Northumbria (AD634-42) is known to have given silk and gold hangings to his religious foundations.

 At the very end of the period, Edward the Confessor’s body was wrapped in a golden-coloured silk shroud woven using a ‘damask’ technique.

 We know that fabrics were not simple; a charred shirt found at Llangorse, where a scene in my book shows Aethelflaed avenging the murder of one of her abbots, is an example of embroidery from the early 10th century.

 Silk threads were also woven through fabrics to give an iridescent shimmer. There has been a great deal of debate on the precise meaning of the term “Godweb” which might have been a description of this fine, silken weave. It is certainly probable that contrasting colours were woven to produce a form of what we would call ‘shot silk’.

 Many scraps of material have been found on the back of brooches: The Fuller brooch, dated to the ninth century, depicts all the senses, in the form of a man pictured rubbing his hands, smelling a plant etc. It is made of niello (a black mixture of copper, silver and lead sulphides used as an inlay) and silver, and is perhaps associated with the court of Wessex.

Brooches, used for decoration as well as for holding garments in place, were often fashioned using complex metal-working techniques.

 We are all familiar with the exquisite jewellery of Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, but the Anglo-Saxons also worked with leather and used this to decorative effect on sword sheaths and embossed leather book binding. The Stonyhurst Gospel buried with St Cuthbert in AD687 is a lovely example.

Mention of leather and metal working should move me on to discuss smell, but whilst there were dangers inherent in jewellery-making - as Stephen Pollington told me: “Processes such as fire-gilding (with mercury as the vehicle) are incredibly dangerous and … an unwary goldsmith overcome by mercury fumes is [a] possibility” - mercury is actually odourless.

 And it seems that during this period, urine was not used in the tanning process; instead they used tannic acid derived from oak bark or oak galls. However, the process of removing the hair and fur from the skins involved folding the hides and leaving them to ‘sweat’ in a warm place to encourage bacteria to eat away at the hair root to allow it to be scraped. This is essentially a rotting process and cannot have smelled pleasant.

 The Anglo-Saxons called November ‘Blood Month’ and again, the smell of slaughtered animals must have been quite overwhelming. Of course, the occasional bread oven aside, most cooking was done on open fires, and hearth fires blazed inside buildings, integral to warmth, well being and the culture of hearth-companions. Glynis Baxter, Heritage Officer at West Stow summed it up succinctly when she said to me, “The only thing we can say with any certainty is that the houses and clothing of the Anglo-Saxons would have smelt of smoke!”

This comment came at the end of a discussion about the use of ‘strewing herbs.’ Later in the medieval period, herbs such as meadowsweet were strewn on the floors as an early form of air-freshener. Since meadowsweet was known to the Anglo-Saxons (they called it meadow wort) and they had a term, bench plank, which refers to sprung wooden floors, I think it is plausible that they might have strewn herbs on their floorboards to make the halls smell a little more fragrant.

 Reconstruction artists such as Judith Dobie and Peter Dunn show us how the buildings, villages and towns might have looked. But what else could the Anglo-Saxons see?

 We know about the texture of fabric, but gold work was used for edging garments such as tunics at the neck, wrist and hem. Colours were bright; blue was derived from woad, red from madder and purple from lichen. There was a visible social distinction between rich and poor, but even ‘homespun’ garments would have had variations, deriving from brown, black, white and grey sheep.

 Such beasts would have looked different from modern farm animals and there is plenty of information about rare and ancient breeds for us to be able to picture what these animals would have looked like, for example the long-snouted Tamworth pig.

And bacon was available all year round. As far as taste is concerned, Anglo-Saxon food was limited, as you might expect, but they had a variety of foods to choose from: a typical feast would contain some of the following: beef, mutton goose or pork in the winter, and game, lamb or kid in the summer and along with bacon, poultry was available all year round.

 People living near the sea or a river would have fresh fish, and shellfish in the winter. Cheeses would be fresh in the spring and summer, and hard (having been hung and smoked) in the winter. Fruit, nuts, pulses and beans were all available as were various fresh vegetables.

 Wine, mead and beer were drunk, whilst milk and buttermilk were served to children. Foods were therefore largely seasonal and local, but bread was of course, a staple. However, many people did not have access to mills, or the means to pay the lord to use his mill, and would grind using quernstones.

 Loaves were not always baked and risen and often folk ate flatbreads. Perhaps all we need to know about the taste is that bread was contaminated by pieces of grit from the millstones so that by middle age, many people had teeth so worn down that they would be in constant pain caused by exposed dentine.

 A rather sad side-note is that grain was often infected, with the seeds of the corn cockle (which are poisonous) and with Ergot, a fungal disease. It seems likely that the hero of my second novel perished from eating contaminated bread. But historical fiction is a wonderful thing and I allowed him to die less prosaically, in battle!

 With no surviving buildings it might seem hard, at first, to begin to piece together what the Anglo-Saxons heard, saw, smelled, tasted and felt. But archaeological evidence, extant texts, and the occasional haul of treasure allow us, slowly, to build a picture of how they lived their daily lives.

 Further reading/references:
Beowulf Aelfric’s Colloquy
Anglo-Saxon Crafts - Kevin Leahy
Anglo-Saxon Food - Ann Hagen
The Mead-Hall - Stephen Pollington
The Senses in Late Medieval England - CM Woolgar
Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England - Debby Banham
Dress in Anglo-Saxon England - G Owen-Crocker
The Real Middle Earth - Brian Bates

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Today I have the honour of being the guest on this wonderful blog by author Maria Grace.

superhero copy

Writing Superheroes: Annie Whitehead

Meet ‘The Eavesdropper’! Read on and find out more…

Please pop over to her site to read the interview:   and follow Maria on 

twitter - @WriterMariaGrace

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Excerpt from "To Be a Queen"

She slept, but only in short bursts. She would turn, and wake, remember that Wulfnoth stood guard outside her tent, and lie down on her right side to drift off for a while, only to wriggle onto her left and wake up again. The noise from the walls was ever present, like bird song. For weeks she had lived with the shouting, hammering, scraping and banging. Shouts to muster were common-place, as were the yelled curses in the foreign tongue from within the walls. As with the dawn chorus, it would wake her once in a while, she would acknowledge it for what it was, and sleep on again through the disturbance. She had lain on top of the bed, too hot to sink under the covers, and now, having slept for a while, she woke up feeling chilly. Grabbing at a blanket, she settled down again, not yet refreshed enough to consider rising. She lay down and closed her eyes once more. Then it came to her. There was no battle noise, no sound of machinery. Trundling cart wheels, digging spades and thudding boulders; all had stopped moving. 

She sat up, pulled on her boots and left the tent. Wulfnoth had disappeared. She was not concerned; he would not have left her unless he knew it was safe to do so. With a growing sense of hope, she walked through a camp which was now near deserted. Dear God, they must have breached the walls, or the gates, or both. Coming to the edge of the encampment she saw the gates of the town hanging open, one almost off its great hinges. Beyond the open gateway, the Danes, surrendered and surrounded, had been herded together. A Mercian banner fluttered from the watchtower. A thegn on the tower pointed his sword at her and began a victory chant. It was taken up by those below, who all joined in, shouting their triumph in the name of their lady. But Æthelflæd was looking at Frith, who walked towards her with his sword still in his hand, hanging low, dragging. He had blood on his face and his long hair was matted. He had his mail-coat on and she gave thanks for his innate tendency to be sensible at such times. But he walked like a wounded man, though she could see that he was whole. 

He bowed on one knee before her. “Lady, Derby is yours.” 

She put a hand on his shoulder. “Tell me. Who do we mourn?”

His blond brows came together to form a single line above his eyes. Beneath those blue-grey eyes, dark shadows of exhaustion robbed him of his beauty. Careworn, fatigued, speaking carefully through a cut lip, he could give her no more than a list of names. “Helmstan, Ælfric, Eadwine, Wulfwine.” 

The rest of her personal guard. 


She opened her mouth but stood, gaping. What did she think to say? No? You are wrong? I misheard you? Of course he was not wrong; he would not break his own heart with lies. 

He struggled to his feet and she squeezed his arm. Nodding towards the inner courtyard she said, “Do what needs to be done here. I will speak to Elfwen.” 

She found her daughter in her tent. She wished that she could be like Frith, and give Elfwen a moment more of the world when it was right, before she plunged her into a deep lake where there was no light, only despair. But she knew that her face told Elfwen all that she needed to know. “Daughter, the town is ours. But many men died in the taking of it. Among them was Eadric.” 

Elfwen gasped but shook her head, believing as her mother had not, that the news was false. “No, that cannot be.” But as she spoke, the words, having hit her ears as lies, must have come into her mind as truth, and she fell face down onto her bed and wept. 

Æthelflæd stood still and let her cry out the initial pain, knowing that there would be more, for days, weeks, mayhap even months to come. 

When the first waves had left her body and the sobbing subsided, Elfwen sat up. 

“How can you stand there like that? Do you not care?” 

Æthelflæd flinched. She thinks I do not care because I do not weep. Once, many years ago, I would have thought the same thing. Oh, Dear Lord, I have loved and lost so often that I have forgot what the first time feels like. She took a step forward. 

Elfwen put out her hand. “No. Do not come near me. You are heartless.” 

Æthelflæd lifted her chin and let her head fall back. Her mouth opened and a strange animal cry came forth from her. It rose from within her core, and shocked her with its force. She looked her daughter in the eye and said, “Oh God, if I had opened my heart upon every death and let out the part of me that died with them, it would not have the strength left to carry on beating.” 

She left Elfwen alone with her tears. The girl would have to learn the hard way. There was no other.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Every Picture Tells a Story ...

The glamorous side of research:

I've been spending some time researching for a magazine article; doing a bit of groundwork for my next novel. I can't say what it's about, because I'm not exactly sure yet myself. I thought going out to some locations might help with the 'muse'.  At the very least, I thought I would use the opportunity to take some photos, to illustrate the planned article and as aides memoire when the time for serious novel writing begins.

I'm pretty pleased with the way the pictures have turned out. Each one shows a scene of serenity, of isolation, and calm natural beauty. And they lie.

Such a pretty picture of a quiet churchyard, isn't it? But as for telling a story - well, no, it doesn't. Because it doesn't communicate the fact that at the exact moment I took the shot, the heavens opened and the rain poured down. It also doesn't show that I managed to arrive while a happy bride was posing for her own photos. And it certainly doesn't convey my sheer idiocy in thinking that since she was outside having her pictures taken, the wedding must be over and I could nip inside to pick up some information leaflets. I don't do 'selfies', so my pictures can't show the horror on my face as I lunged inside, only to see about 75 colourfully-attired people turn round in delighted expectation. Their feather-strewn hats wobbled as they shook their heads in disdain. Yes, the bride was about to go in, and the wedding was about to take place.

After beating a hasty and soggy retreat, we went back to the car and ate our soggier sandwiches as the sun came out and shone down. Again, I don't do selfies so there's no evidence of my sitting in the passenger seat, red in the face and resembling a ripening tomato under greenhouse glass.

And so to a place associated with the story I'm researching, described as being 'near' to a village. Finding the village was arduous enough, with one obliging local telling us not to carry on down one particular road as the roads down there all 'get a bit skinny'. Spotting a sign which described a place that might or might not be the spot we were looking for, I went to the nearest property which was a riding stables. I asked a couple of the grooms if they knew where the place was, but neither of them did. In this short space of time my driver (aka my long-suffering husband) had barricaded himself in the car and refused to open the door to let me back in because a plague of flies had attached themselves to the vehicle. I eventually managed to get in and we drove off at speed, tyres complaining about the shingle track, and the flies clinging on with an attitude that is described in these parts as "sheer badness".

Fewer than 100 yards down the road, we found the spot. And by the looks of it we were the first human visitors in about fifty years.

It's a vision of solitude and tranquillity, no? But still photos don't tell tales like videos do and if there were a soundtrack added to this, all you would hear is the sound of my driver telling me, in bunches of four letter words, every time he found a nettle. Or should I say, when the nettles found him.  It was time to move on.

High up in the hills, we stopped to ask some walkers about our next destination. The gentleman with the hiking poles, rucksack and zip-off walking shorts looked me up and down, sniffed in such a way as to make me wonder what else we had managed to tread in amongst the bracken and the nettles, and told me, "You'll never make it in those shoes."

So we went back the next day, in the correct garb. Halfway up the mountain (I say mountain, but I used to live in East Anglia, so, you know, anything above sea level ...) we met a man who said, "No point, it's all shrouded in mist and cloud." And he was right. Except that of course, on the way back down, the sun came out and the rocks dried up and it flattened out a bit and so I really wasn't expecting to slip and fall ... I'm not proud of the moment I sat on my backside on that hill and cried like a four-year-old. And here's the photo that categorically does not tell that story, but was, nevertheless, taken about thirty seconds later:

So yes, every picture tells a story. Just not necessarily the truth. That's where we writers come in. Isn't it?

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

"Begin at the beginning..."

Okay so I'm new to all this, so please bear with me while I learn. I'm trained to work with pre-school children and my method is always to get them to have a go at whatever is the day's new challenge. I'll show them how to hold their scissors, but then I encourage them to get right on and try to cut the paper. So I think I need to apply my own teaching methods to this blog: jump right in and have a go.
The first thing I was asked to do when I was attempting to set up this page was to come up with a title. I chose this one because my first three novels are all set in the period known as the Dark Ages. But I don't envisage posting only about my novels. I also want to share my thoughts on current news items and post links to shorter articles, some of which are already written and published, some of which exist only as a series of hand-scrawled notes.

Sometimes I might just want to share my thoughts on anything that has caused me to smile during my day, or given me reason to stop and consider. These musings are what my children call my WOW moments (Wise Old Woman). If I tell you that these same children (and many of their friends) all have me on speed-dial under the name "Mother Hen", you might get the idea.

In a seminar room one stuffy summer's morning, smoke billowing everywhere (no,there wasn't a fire - everybody was allowed to smoke indoors in those days) I heard my lecturer say "No one really knows where Ethelred came from." Well, this notion intrigued me, but it wasn't really relevant to the business of studying and gaining my degree, so I filed it away at the back of my mind. Many years later, when I had the time to sit and write my first novel, that statement came back to me. But, whilst I hadn't lost interest in this mystery man who came riding into the pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, I realised that the story was, in fact, about his wife - Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians.

She was the daughter of King Alfred, her husband was de facto King of Mercia and yet it was she who helped keep her adopted kingdom of Mercia free from the Viking invaders and paved the way for her nephew, Athelstan, to unite the country.

I hope to tell you more about this remarkable lady and, indeed, more about the period that is so erroneously called the "Dark" ages, but for now let me thank you for visiting this page and say Wes Hal, (Welcome)