A Year of Reading Lewis: A Grief Observed

A Grief Observed was published in 1961, after the death of Lewis’ wife Joy (of cancer) in 1960. Interestingly, Lewis published this under the pseudonym N.W. Clark,, as he did not wish to be identified as the author. It was only published under his real name in 1963, after his own death.

The book is a compilation of his journal entries in which he expresses his journey through grief and the struggles he faced along the way. He did not mean it to be an exploration of the universal experience of grief, rather, it was the honest look at what grief looked like for him, after Joy’s death (called H in the book – her first name, rarely used, was Helen).

C.S. Lewis and Joy, in happier days

C.S. Lewis and Joy, in happier days

I used the word “honest” above, and above all, this is how this book struck me. I read this book first as a teenager, and death had not touched me in any significant ways. Re-reading it now, after I have suffered the uncomfortable presence of death more than once, was a much different experience.

Right from the first line, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” you get the sense that Lewis would not be holding anything back in the exploration of his feelings as he walked through grief. And being Lewis, his feelings are not the only thing he examines. He is a Christian, he wrote the Problem of Pain a few years back, and now his own words on the subject are haunting him. How does a Christian really deal with this kind of pain? As he says, “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'” And what Christian who wrestles with the dark times has not faced this fear, too? At one point in the book Lewis explores this further, wonders how we can call God “good” when we are faced with so much pain. How can we trust Him when, as in their case, prayers were seemingly answered for healing (Joy went through an unexpected remission) but then the cancer returned? As he writes, “Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.” 

Strong stuff. But the very next sentence is, “I wrote that last night. It was a yell rather than a thought. Let me try it over again.” Lewis’ great strength, his intellectual honesty, comes to the rescue. It would have been easy for him to edit that “yell” out of the final manuscript. But keeps it in, along with the exploration that follows as he wrestles with the question is it rational to believe in a bad God? And in doing so we understand that it is okay to question in the midst of our pain and grief. In this, as in so much of his writings, Lewis offers a hand in friendship to us.

This painful examination of the depth of his faith shows how grief has stripped away his certainty of the goodness of God. “If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which ‘took these things into account’ was not faith, but imagination….I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find I didn’t.” Lewis doesn’t shy from this examination, he faces it head on and forces himself to think through how his faith fits in with this new reality he finds himself in.

“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” The terrible, unrelenting loneliness of grief is also discussed, along with the fear that Lewis felt in the fading of Joy from his life and memory.  “What pitable cant to say, ‘She will live forever in my memory!” Live? That is exactly what she won’t do. ….as if I wanted to fall in love with my  memory of her, an image in my own mind!” 

In many ways, although this is certainly a book about one man’s journey through grief, it is so much more. It speaks to all of us who have experienced pain. It is the counterpoint to A Problem With Pain, the working out in reality of the principles expressed in that book. And that is perhaps one of the reasons why Lewis decided to publish this anonymously at first. He probably didn’t want all sorts of comparisons between that work and this, and gleeful pronouncements from his detractors along the line of “In that book he talked all about the goodness of God despite the reality of suffering, well, look at him now! Wallowing in his pain like the rest of us!” Publishing this book anonymously allowed for it, and the ideas it expresses, to stand alone and be contemplated in their own right.

If you have suffered through the death of a loved one, you may find that Lewis’ journey as expressed in this book was not your own. Which is understandable, for all of us are unique. But I can hardly imagine that you won’t get some comfort out of it, all the same. Especially if you are a person of faith, you will find his honesty refreshing and ultimately, reaffirming.

Lewis comes to the conclusion, “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. it was I who didn’t.” In other words, this great trial forced him to see just how weak his faith really was, which is not always a bad thing. The Cosmic Sadist (as he calls God in one point of the book) is turned into a wise Vet, who is causing pain to a creature who can’t understand the need for it, in order to bring them healing.

There is much room for contemplation in this book, for although it is hard, emotionally, to read  at times, Lewis’ rigorous examination of himself in the midst of his grief gives us permission to wrestle with the questions he poses as well. Once again I am filled with admiration for his skill in illuminating difficult topics for us. Surely this was one of the worst times in his life, and yet he offers these words he wrote in the midst of it to us as a gift, in order to shine a little light in our own dark times, and above all, to show us we are not alone in feeling doubt, fear, anger, and depression in the midst of them.

And for that, I am grateful.

The inscription on Joy's crematorium marker was presumably written by Lewis. Photo credit: Ferrell Jenkins, https://biblicalstudies.info/cslewis/cslewis.htm

The inscription on Joy’s crematorium marker was presumably written by Lewis. Photo credit: Ferrell Jenkins

Halloween in Dark Ages Britain

Next weekend is Halloween, so probably this post fits a little better there, but it’s also the end of the month which is when I have my regularly scheduled Year of Reading Lewis series. So, I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon early and give you a little peek into how the people in 7th century Britain (Northumbria, to be exact) celebrated Halloween.*

For starters, they didn’t. The term “Halloween” came along much later. But they did have a significant celebration at the end of October. And by “they”, I have to separate out the various people-groups who were living in Northumbria at the time: the Celts, the Anglo-Saxon pagans, and the Christians.

  1. The Celts – we’ll start with these, as their festival is the one most often linked to our Halloween. It is called various names by the Celts – by the Irish, Oiche Shamna (summer’s end), the Welsh, Nos Calend Gaeaf (the eve of the winter’s calend, or beginning) and by the Scots* Samhain, the name we are most familiar with (pronounced sow-an, or sow-in, also meaning summer’s end). I will use the word Samhain to lump all these festivals together, although there were some differences between the way it was celebrated depending on where you were.  As you can guess from these names, this was basically their version of New Year’s Eve. It was an important date, this turning of summer to winter. All of the animals were brought in from the hills, and many of them were slaughtered, as there would not be enough forage for them to eat in the winter months. The animals to be killed would be ritually dedicated to the gods. The meat was smoked, salted, and otherwise preserved to feed the family over the winter, and some of the bones tossed into the large fires which were lit this night, which were called bone-fires,  the origin of our word, bonfire. There were other rituals associated with these fires as well, including in some cases the dousing of all the hearth-fires and the re-lighting of them all from the main fire, as in the spring time celebration of Beltane.640px-Beltane_Bonfire_on_Calton_HillThe harvest was gathered in and stored for winter use. This would be a time of thanksgiving for a good harvest, or a time of fear if the harvest was poor and the people faced a long, cold winter and the possibility of running out of food. The storehouses were filled for the winter with the fruits of the harvest. Samhain was a “turning time”, when the season turned from summer to winter, and as such this date at the end of October had some scary connotations for the Celts as well. Last week on the blog I posted about the Thin Places, where heaven and earth meet. Samhain was a sort of “thin time”, when the doorways between the Otherworld (the home of the faeries, or the place of the dead) opened, and one could cross from one to another. People were fearful of going out on the eve of Samhain, as they could encounter some of these fearsome apparitions. This is why people took to dressing up as scary creatures themselves, to deflect the attention of the wandering evil spirits.

2. The Anglo-Saxons – it’s a little trickier to determine exactly how the Angles and Saxons celebrated this time of year, as much of their customs have been lost. These were the descendants of the Germanic tribes who first came to Britain at the behest of the Romano-British leaders who, after the withdrawal of the Roman legions, needed some help to protect themselves against the Picts. But sometime later, these mercenaries revolted against their erstwhile employers, setting the stage for more invasions and wars between them and the native British. At the time of the 7th century the native British have been pushed off to the far north and west of Britain, and the Anglo-Saxons held power over the rest of the island. They followed the religion brought with them from their homeland, namely the worship of Woden, Thor, and other Germanic deities. Bede wrote a treatise called The Reckoning of Time, in which he wrote a chapter on “The English Months”, describing how the English (Anglish) divided their year before becoming Christianized and following the Roman calendar. And it is a good thing he did, for this is some of the only information we have on some of the rituals and practices of the Anglo-Saxons.

According to Bede, the month of October was called Winterfellith (or, Winterfyllƌ). He comments,

Originally they [the heathen English] divided the year into two seasons, summer and winter, assigning the six months in which the days are longer than the nights to summer, and the other six to winter. Hence, they called the month in which the winter season began “Winterfilleth”, a name made up of “winter” and “full Moon”, because winter began on the first full moon of that month.

The month following October is called Blotmonað (blood month), the month of blood sacrifices. As Bede says,

Blodmonath is the “month of immolations”, for then the cattle which were to be slaughtered were consecrated to the gods.

So you can see here some similarity between this practice and the Celtic one described above. I’m sure there were rituals accompanying all these practices, but it is very difficult to find actual evidence of the religious beliefs and practices of the Anglo-Saxons. Many people today who practice “paganism” or “heathenism” have in essence, co-opted later rituals (such as the Nordic myths) and applied them to the Saxons, but this is not necessarily what the Saxons themselves actually believed. Suffice it to say historians are not sure exactly how the Saxons celebrated this important “turning time” between summer and winter.

3. The Christians – of course, there were Anglo-Saxon Christians, Roman Christians, and Celtic Christians in Britain in the 7th century, and all would have left their pagan practices behind as they joined the Church. In theory, of course. In reality I imagine many of them would have combined parts of their pagan faith to the new faith they had embraced, especially at the beginning. I imagine you are expecting that I am now going to explain the link between All Hallows Eve, the evening before All  Hallows Day, an important day in the liturgical year of the church in which the dead saints, martyrs, and other departed faithful believers are celebrated. This is the origin of our modern day word, “Halloween”. It is true that the Church began to celebrate All Hallows Day in 609 AD, but not at the end of October. The original date was May 13th. It wasn’t changed to October 31st until 835. So in the 7th century, the Christians would not have been celebrating anything at all on this date!

It’s so very interesting to look back and see how the people of the past have influenced our lives today. In many ways our modern-day Halloween is a connection between us and those people who lived so many years ago, whose practices still survive in a very small way.

*caveat, the Scotti were actually the term for the Irish at this time, the people we know as Scots now were the Picts (basically). But to save confusion I am using the modern terms.

**Featured image: Jack-o-Lantern, by William Warby, on Flickr. Note: the carved jack-o-lantern would not have been used during the 7th century as part of the Samhain celebrations. This was a later addition, from the 17th-18th centuries, and in the British Isles they would have used turnips, not pumpkins. The carved pumpkin is an American addition.

Reposting: The Thin Places

Note: There’s been some new followers to the blog lately (thank you!) and seeing as I am off celebrating thirty years of marriage to my wonderful hubby this week, I thought it might be a good time to repost one of my earlier posts. Hope you enjoy, and I’ll be back with something new next week! 


Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the Thin Places that distance is even smaller – Celtic proverb.

The ancient Celts had a concept of Thin Places, where the veil between the worlds was easily crossed. The Celtic Christians, whose practice of the faith was a delightful mixture of earthy and mystical, eagerly co-opted this idea of their pagan forefathers into one of their own. The Thin Places, in their reckoning, were places where earth and heaven were particularly close together, where the sacred and the mundane were juxtaposed, where one could as likely encounter the King of Heaven striding across a misty dew-soaked field as a roe deer.

The Hill of Tara in Ireland, Glastonbury Tor in England, and St. David’s in Wales are some of those places, sacred to the ancient Celts and ones which became holy to the Celtic Christians as well. All were known as Thin Places before the advent of Christianity in Britain, and after.

What is it about these places that the Celts found compelling? Natural beauty, to be sure, was a factor, but there seems to have been something else that set them apart. Something  that awakened the longing  that C.S. Lewis described so well many centuries later:

The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from – my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” (Till We Have Faces).

To the Celtic Christians that longing seemed especially poignant in the Thin Places. The lay of the hills or the misty seascape lodged in their hearts like an arrow, piercing through their everyday concerns and bringing them face to face with Heaven.

I knew I had to have some Thin Places for my characters to stumble across in my historical fantasy trilogy, which is set in Northumbria, 642 AD.  It was fun to imagine what function they might have in the books, how my characters would react to them. After all, how does it feel to stumble across one of these places? And would it feel different to a 7th century monk as opposed to a 21st century man?

It’s tempting to think of these places in a pagan sense, as the ancient Celts did, to imagine that the landscape itself is what is eliciting the transcendent effect. In the Christian teachings, though, the Creation is a signpost to the Creator. The heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1). The Celtic Christians saw the Thin Places as ones where that glory was particularly accessible. As St. Columbanus (6th century Irish monk) said, “Understand created things if you want to understand the Creator.”

I have tried to infuse this understanding of the Thin Places into my books, which has challenged me to have eyes that see, to look for the evidence of God in all the natural beauty of the Creation. Is there something of God that I can learn from a tree? The breaking waves on the shore? When I start to slow down and notice, I can see that even the steadfast devotion of my dog carries hints of that greater love that never fails us.

This whole idea of Thin Places is just one of those fascinating details that make historical fiction so much fun to read, and to write. I love discovering these little treasures that not only enrich my story world, but my own as well.

photo credit: “Here Sleep Deer” by Stuart Williams, CC via Flickr

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Your thoughts? Have you ever encountered a Thin Place? If so, why do you think so? Is there any place for this concept in our understanding of the world today?

The Hum and the Shiver (Tufa #1), by Alex Bledsoe

This book was published in 2011, so it’s not exactly new. I picked it up at my library last year, because, that title. It’s got to be the best title of a book I’ve seen in a long time. The cover art was beautiful and mysterious, just like the title. And when I read the back cover summary, I was hooked. It had all the hallmarks of a book that I was going to love.

For the most part, it didn’t disappoint. The book is in a genre I particularly enjoy, urban (or should I say, rural?) fantasy. The main character is Browyn Hyatt, a soldier returning to her home in the Appalachian Mountains, hailed as a hero but suffering from PTSD and other physical wounds. This is no ordinary girl, we see that right from the beginning. She is tough and prickly. You get the impression that she was like that before her stint in Iraq (her nickname is The Bronwynator), but that her war experiences have wounded her more than just physically, and that she falls back upon her prickly personality to compensate.

But this is not exactly a cozy homecoming. It is obvious that she is joined the army in part to escape from her people, the mysterious Tufa, who live down the backroads in this tiny rural community in the Tennessee hills.

One of the things I loved about this book is the slow introduction to the Tufa. There’s hints and signs that there is something odd about these people but you are not quite sure what it all means.

Dark haired and dark skinned, yet not white, black, or Native American (although often content to be mistaken for any of the above if it meant they’d be left alone), the Tufa kept their secrets so close that…no one even knew how they’d turned up deep in Appalachia. Yet when the first official Europeans had reached this valley three centuries earlier, the Tufa were already here, living quietly in the hills and minding their own business.

The Smoky Mountains, in my mind, are entwined with the  particular music that is unique to the place, and which I love. Music is important in this book too, in fact, it is the basis of the “magic” of the Tufa. Bronwyn is a First Daughter of the Tufa, and there are hints her mother is about to die, and so Bronwyn needs to learn her mother’s song, which is always passed on from mother to daughter, before it is lost forever. Problem is, the brain injury that she has sustained has stolen her ability to play music, something which is essential to every Tufa.

Another strong element for the book for me was the character of Craig Chess, who is a young Methodist minister who is new to the valley where the Tufa live, and who is beginning a church there. I so often find Christians, and in particular Christian ministers, to be one-dimensional characters in mainstream fiction. And usually that one dimension isn’t a very good one. I appreciated that Bledsoe actually took the time to make the pastor a real person, with some real questions and struggles with his faith in the light of the strange goings-on, but who doesn’t abandon his faith. At least by the end of the book. There’s two more books in the series that I have to catch up on, so we’ll see how that goes.

Chess is one of Bronwyn’s love interests, interestingly enough, and the other one is the nasty Dwayne Gitterman, her erstwhile boyfriend who belongs to the Hyatt’s rival Tufa clan. Bronwyn’s escape into the army was also an escape from him. This relationship was one that I found a bit hard to understand. The whole portrayal of Bronwyn as a wild and sexually promiscuous teenager is a bit off-putting, especially as she is portrayed as having such a strong will, the kind of person no one messes with. Yet she put up with all sorts of degrading abuse from this man, and is portrayed as liking it, in some ways. It just didn’t add up in my own mind. It is this element of the book that makes me give it four stars, not five. Because of that and some rough language, it is definitely an adult fantasy, not YA, so be warned!

Bledsoe provides us with a bridge character between our world and the world of the Tufa, that of Don Swayback, a reporter sent to interview Bronwyn who is part Tufa himself, but who has never connected with that part of his family. His slow awakening to the mysteries of the Tufa is also our own, and it’s interesting to see how his character develops throughout the book, as his perceptions change from the Tufa being the weird back-country relatives that no one wants to talk about, to something altogether more appealing and interesting.

I can’t say too much about other parts of the book that I particularly enjoyed, as it resonates too much with elements that are in my trilogy, and, well, spoilers. Suffice it to say for the most part I liked this book and it’s take on the Tufa, and I’m looking forward to reading Book Two, Wisp of A Thing. 

Saturday Short – “Red”

I wrote this short story in response to a challenge from a fellow blogger, to write a 1000 word story based on the photo prompt, which I have included here. She actually posted a picture a day, and we were to come up with 1000 words a day. It was hard! I didn’t actually keep up, but this was one of the early stories, and I kinda like it. Yes, I realized after the fact that the time on the watch is not 6:25, but 6:35. But I had to keep it as 6:25 in the story, for obvious reasons. Oh well. I was writing fast, so you’ll have to forgive me. 


Stacy touched the hair clip with her finger, adjusting it so it was an equal distance from the bow tie and the pen.

She heard Toby’s exasperated sigh, but she ignored it. She was on to something, she knew it. Sweat trickled down her nose, and she brushed it away absently.

“It’s red,” she muttered. She sat back, her shoulder muscles aching from being hunched over the desk for so long.

“No kidding,” Toby retorted. She heard him push back his chair, heard his quick footsteps on the tiled floor. She didn’t bother looking up. They had to figure this out. There wasn’t much time left.

Time. Her eyes were drawn to the watch. 6:25. The time when everything had stopped for Luke, and truth be told, for everyone else, too. Eight hours ago now, but it seemed like a lifetime.

She heard a scream, faintly, heard Toby’s quick intake of breath, the rattle of the shutters as he peered outside.

It was all just background noise, distractions she had to ignore as she focused on the objects illuminated by the thin beam of the flashlight.

The pen. The sunglasses. The wallet.

This configuration felt right. She looked them over again, desperately searching for the revelation that was tickling around her mind.

The shutters fell back against the window, and Toby came back, sliding into the chair opposite her.

“It’s getting worse out there.”

It was not worth commenting on. What did he expect, that it would get better?

The headphones. The bow tie. The phone.

Smashing glass, faintly at first, then closer.

Her head snapped up, met Toby’s startled gaze. He swore, his voice tight with fear as he popped up again, over to the window in two quick strides.

A louder scream, more glass breaking, and around the edges of those sounds a faint low-pitched, snarly muttering.

Stacy’s blood turned to ice, her eyes pinned on Toby’s silhouette against the window; a dark shadow against the darker night beyond.

“Turn it off!”

Tony’s voice made her jump, and Stacy snapped the flashlight off, plunging them into full dark.

“Oh God,” Toby exhaled, the words a thin sigh of terror. “I think there’s one coming in, or maybe more, I can’t see – “

The far-off noises of the city’s death continued as it had all night – muffled explosions, the sharp staccato of guns; the futile last fight of mankind.

Stacy forced her attention back to the objects, tracing them with her fingers.

The billfold. The phone. The watch. The glasses.

Toby sat down again, leaning over the desk. It was true, you could smell fear on a person. He reeked with it.

Her fingers touched the smooth leather surface of the Bible.

“We’ve got to get out of here. Now.” His voice was thin with panic.

“No. Not yet. I’ve got to figure this out.”

“We’ve been doing this for hours. There’s nothing to figure out! No message! No final words, no nothing! He died, like everyone else!”

The pen, the hair clip, the bow tie, the Bible.

The weird whooping electrical noise that had preceded the attack on the city, that had formed the background to everything else, was getting louder.

Her brother grabbed her hand, stopping her sweep of the objects again. His fingers were cold. “Stacy, listen. There’s nothing mystical about this. Those creatures – I dunno what the hell they are, or where they came from, but they are real. Luke died, just like the rest of them. Just because you found this stuff of his in his backpack doesn’t mean anything.” He squeezed her hand, hard, and she had to look up. She could see the faint glimmer of his eyes in the dark. “You haven’t had your pill. The OCD’s making you crazy. You’ve lined all this stuff up a million times, in a million different ways. I’ve gone along with it ‘cause I thought we were safe, that they wouldn’t get this far. But they have. They’re inside the building. We have to go, now!”

Stacy knew he was right. She could feel the cage of OCD closing around her, knew that what she was doing was not necessarily rational. But neither was anything else that was happening.

In a crazy world, maybe it was the crazy ones that could survive.

“I know,” she said. “But not just yet. Just give me a second – “

She pulled her hand away, fingers fluttering over the objects again.

“The hair clip is red,” she said, “that means something. The only thing of color.”

Toby exhaled.“We have to go. Now. Just take them with you if it makes you feel better.”

Muffled thumps drifted up from the building, from somewhere below, but not directly below. They had some time, yet.

“Red,” she said, touching the objects again. The pen, the bow tie, the Bible.

She froze, the revelation rolling over her like a freight train, the pieces snapping in to place.

The Bible.

Read,” she hissed, picking up the small book. “Like reading. Read.”

She snapped on the flashlight, directing it at the pages, her fingers fumbling now.

“Stace! Turn it off, c’mon – “

She flipped through the pages frantically.

This Bible stuff was new to Cody, new to them all. He’d gone to some camp, came back all religious. Talked about Jesus.

Her fingers froze. Red words illuminated under the flashlight’s beam.

“Wait, how do you do this, I mean, when you look up a verse?”

“This is crazy – “

“I swear this is it, Toby, this is the answer. We have to find it.”

His eyes were frantic. He blew out his cheeks.

“You need a book, a chapter, and a verse, like, John 3:16.”

Her eyes caught on a word. Luke.

She flipped the pages.

“Luke 6:25. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” She looked up at her brother. “The end of the world. That’s what this means, what it’s telling us.”

“So what?”

“So maybe the answer is in here, too. The way out of this mess. It’s gotta be.”

Snappng off the flashlight, she scooped up the small book, dropping it into her pocket, her fingers skimming its edges quickly.

Taking her brother’s hand, they left quickly, two small figures racing away from Armegeddon.

The Not-So-Dark Ages

I’ve been wanting to clarify something for some time. I use the term “Dark Ages” to describe the era in which my historical fantasy trilogy is set, as it gives me a short-hand way of identifying the setting. It’s perhaps a little more understandable than “7th century Northumbria”….but perhaps not.

The problem lies with the term, “Dark Ages”, that period from the 5th to the 10th century, between the fall of Rome and the rise of medieval Europe.* For most people this conjures up a certain picture of a time when Rome’s mighty grip loosened as the Empire gradually collapsed, when there was lots of wars, when people scrabbled for existence in the dirt, when all the knowledge gained during the classical and Roman eras was wiped out, when education was non-existent and when people’s lives were described perhaps the best by Thomas Hobbes: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.*

To be fair, I must confess this was close to how I thought of the Dark Ages as well when I started research for my book. However, the more I researched, the more I came to understand that life in the so-called Dark Ages wasn’t quite exactly as I had imagined it. I’ll give you some idea of what I mean, using Northumbria in the 7th century as an example, as that is the place I am most familiar with.

Wars – well, yes, there were violent skirmishes and conflicts, starting with the invasion of the Anglo-Saxon tribes after Rome’s armies pulled out (although technically they were first invited in, as a sort of mercenary army to keep the native Britons under control after the legions left) which resulted in wars between them and the native Britons (both the Romano-Britons that were left behind and the British tribes), innumerable cattle-thieving and skirmishes between the Celtic tribes as well as outright war between themselves and against the Picts. And the Anglic and Saxon kings (Angles in the north of Britain, Saxon in the south) fought against each other, to be sure, but really, these kings were just as much farmers as they were warriors. Yes, they would go on yearly rounds of their kingdoms exacting tribute from their people (early form of taxation!) and they could only hang on to their thrones through showing their prowess at warfare, which enabled them to lavish booty upon their thegns and eorldomen, but most of the time they were making sure the crops were planted, the roads kept safe, the bridges maintained, and that the kingdom was in order. The coerls would do most of the work, granted, but the kings had to spend a fair amount of time doing these mundane jobs too.

Helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, early 7th century. Not the greatest picture, but this is a special one for me because it's one I actually took. Yes, I saw it in person at the British museum. Wow.

Warrior’s helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, early 7th century. Possibly belonging to Ræwald, King of East Anglia.Not the greatest picture, but this is a special one for me because it’s one I actually took. Yes, I saw it in person at the British museum. Wow.

2. Education – it would be wrong to think that the people of this era had no opportunities for education. In fact, Britain’s first schools were established during this period, at the monasteries. They were developed in order to train priests for the work of the church, but girls who were destined to be nuns and other children of some of the higher class families would have had opportunity to attend as well, and in some cases along with their parents. And you will probably be surprised at what was taught at these schools. The first order of business was to teach Latin, as the church liturgy was mainly in this language, but as the students gained competence in it, other subjects were added. Some of the poets of late Antiquity as well as some of the classical poets like Virgil were studied, and these works formed the basis of the trivium – grammar, rhetoric (the art of effective and persuasive speaking and writing), and dialectic (a method of examining and discussing opposing ideas in order to find the truth). Some scientific subjects, the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmony/musical theory) were also studied. And don’t be fooled into thinking that what they were learning in the area of the sciences was wrong. For example, Bede was well aware that the earth was round, that the length of the solar year was not a whole number of days (in other words, not exactly 365 days every year, hence why we have a Leap Year, in order to catch up), and that one could predict things like eclipses, comets, solstices, and equinoxes. Could everyone read and write? No, which has been true for almost every era until our modern times (not even true everywhere around the world today). Did everyone have access to education? No, the schools were pretty sparsely populated, but they were there, and those that attended actually got a pretty good education, if you could make it through the floggings for not doing your work. Heh.

3. Arts and culture – any idea that the people of this era had no appreciation for, nor the skills to make, beautiful things is pretty easily dismissed. Just have a look at these:

Sword hilt fitting, from the Staffordshire Hoard, gold and garnet.

Sword hilt fitting, from the Staffordshire Hoard, gold and garnet.

Purse lid, from the Sutton Hoo treasure. Gold and garnet. Photo: KotomiCreations, on Flickr

Purse lid, from the Sutton Hoo treasure. Gold and garnet. Photo: KotomiCreations, on Flickr

The Battersea Shield, a Celtic shield that dates from 350 AD, so a little earlier than the Dark Ages era, but you get the point. It wasn't only the Saxons who made beautiful things! This was fished out of the Thames in

The Battersea Shield (bronze and enamel, a Celtic shield that dates from the early first century, so not exactly Dark Ages era, but you get the point. It wasn’t only the Saxons who made beautiful things! This was fished out of the Thames in 1857.

A detail from the second initial page from St. Matthew's Gospel.

The beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels, from approx. 760 AD. A detail from the second initial page from St. Matthew’s Gospel.

4. Short, brutish lives – there is an idea that people during the Dark Ages pretty much died when they reached 40 years old or so. This is not technically true. It is true that the average life expectancy was around 35, but the key word there is average. The number is skewed lower than ours because of the very high rate of infant mortality – between one-third to one-half of children died as infants. But if you survived those first perilous years, you actually had a pretty good chance of leading a fairly long life, as long as you weren’t a warrior, which of course tended to cut your years short. There was medical knowledge available to deal with injuries and sickness, but of course some of that was a bit hit and miss. Infections were a huge problem after an injury, even a non-fatal wound would often end up killing the person. However, there is forensic evidence from skeletons of set bones and some crude but effective surgery being performed. It’s hard to believe, but there is even evidence that a form of brain surgery, called trepanning, was practiced. This involved drilling a hole into the skull and exposing the dura mater of the brain, to relieve pressure from swelling, release pooled blood, or clear our bone fragments after a skull fracture. Even more surprising is that the evidence from the skeletons shows that many survived this procedure.

I could go on about this, but I hope you get the point. This era was not a Black Hole into which all civility, culture, and learning fell, only to emerge again during the 11th century.

It was actually a really interesting time to write about, I hope that once my book is published (thinking positive here!) you will enjoy reading about it too!

If you want more information on this, check out this link (warning, the language is a little “salty” at times but they’ve done their research well): 5 Myths You Probably Believe About the Dark Ages


*And to be clear, this term Dark Ages really only refers to European history. The Arab world would see this time as one of their greatest eras.

** Hobbes actually wasn’t talking about life in the Dark Ages here. This is his idea of what life would be like without any political community or government.