What’s for Dinner, Ecgfrida?

As a historical fiction author, getting all the little details right about the era you are writing about can make you break out in a cold sweat. Unless, of course, you happen to be an expert in that era of history and can write all about it with ease. Most of us, however, rely on research to get the details needed to support the story we are trying to tell and make the era come alive.

Little details,  like what the people of the time wore, and, more importantly, what they ate. Why is food so important to a writer? Well, if you think about it, we humans spend quite a lot of time acquiring food, preparing food, and eating food, don’t we? Perhaps “acquiring” doesn’t take so long in our modern era, but in the Dark Ages they didn’t exactly have supermarkets to run to when they ran out of milk.

It’s not to say that your story has to have endless lists of what people are eating, but when you do have your characters sitting down for a meal, you had better know what’s on the menu, right? I suppose you could  avoid writing about eating at all. But doing so takes away from the writer an important setting in which people talk to one another. Having your characters sit down at a meal is a handy way to have them interact.

So, figuring out what they would be eating is important. It gets complicated, though.  First of all, forget the food for a moment. My books are set in Anglo-Saxon 7th century Britain. What about the plates? Utensils? They wouldn’t be dining on fine china and using the family silver, right?

There’s not a whole raft of information out there about the Dark Ages in general and the 7th century in particular, although there is more than you might think. However, little details like this are even more difficult to determine, just because we don’t have a lot of first-hand written information about the customs of the people, especially those of the everyday people.

But for a quick answer, no, more than likely people would not use plates, at least not china ones, but bowls or wooden (or bread) trenchers. Pottery dishes were used, and even glass ones, but those would have been for the upper class, only. Horns from cattle and oxen were also made into drinking vessels, decorated with bands of silver or brass. Utensils would consists of  spoons and knives, but no forks. Those came much later.

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Amazingly, this 7th century glass beaker was found intact (!) by a bulldozer operator in 1977, in Cambridgeshire. Note the narrow, rounded bottom. It was not meant to be set on the table, but held in the hand until the drink was finished. Bottoms up! Image from BBC History of the World.

So, back to the menu. What were the Anglo-Saxons eating, anyway?

Much less meat than we do, for a start, and a whole lot more grains, legumes, vegetables, and fish. Fruits, such as grapes, apples, and pears, were fairly common in Britain at the time, along with various nuts such as hazelnuts and walnuts.

There was game to eat, certainly, such as hares (rabbits were imported by the Romans but didn’t get established in the wild until the twelfth century), deer, and the Saxon’s favourite, boars. Poaching (and the related land laws) was not as big a deal at this era as it would become later, so ordinary people could hunt for game. But hunting was not exactly easy, and it required specialized tools (bows, spears, or even falcons), and it came with a certain amount of danger as well as uncertainty.

In other words, if you didn’t have the time or means to hunt, you couldn’t rely on it for a steady source of meat. One alternative, which was much more popular (at least according to archeological digs, where they can see what kind of bones are left behind) was fish and seafood.

This makes sense, seeing as Britain is a relatively small island, with access to both the sea and lakes and rivers. And people made use of the bounty they found there. Fish, oysters, mussels, even porpoises show up in Anglo-Saxon garbage heaps. And don’t forget the lowly eel, which seems to have been very popular as a dish.

Other sources of protein were eggs, and milk. Milk was probably not drank much past childhood, but it certainly was made into cheese and butter. Cows as well as sheep and goats would be a source of milk. Also a source of meat, although it seems, from what archeologists can determine, that pigs were the domesticated animal most often eaten by the regular person. Which makes sense, I suppose. The other animals are useful for other things besides their meat, but what else can you do with a pig? Plus, although all of the domesticated animals then would have been smaller than today’s varieties, pigs can provide a fair amount of meat.

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In 2012, archeologists found the skeleton of a woman who had been buried with a cow in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, dating from the late 5th century. This is extremely unusual, only 31 animals have ever been found buried in England, all horses buried with men as part of their grave-goods.  A cow is a high-value item due to it’s meat, to bury it with the woman shows the respect others had for her. She also had jewelry and other objects indicating high status. Photo (and interesting article, click on link to read) from BBC.com

Cultivated grains and legumes were of course a large part of the menu. Barley was the most common cereal grain to be grown, but wheat started to make an inroad at this time, and other grains such as rye and oats were also eaten. Bread, using barley, and in the later years, wheat, was baked on hearth-stones, and would have been small, and round. It could be unleavened, or made with wild yeast (captured from the air) or even made using the sourdough method, by which you keep a continual source of fermenting dough on hand.

After the cereal grains, the most important part of the diet would have been pulses such as beans and peas. In fact, it seems likely that each household probably had a pot of briw  simmering over the fire all the time. This was a sort of pottage or stew in which broth, cereal grains, peas or beans, and whatever else was handy was thrown together. If you were lucky the day’s briw might even contain some meat.

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A typical Anglo-Saxon briw. Image (and pottage, with anachronistically orange carrots) by Abigail Young on PictureBritain

The leek was the vegetable of choice for the Anglo-Saxons, which was a catch-all word that covered not only what we think of leeks but also garlic and onion. They also grew cabbage, beets, turnips, and carrots (which were white, not orange). Potatoes were not introduced into Britain until much later, 1586 to be exact). Herbs were grown, too, although it seems that many of the herbs we would use for flavouring they used for medicinal purposes, and not for food.

People did drink water, if they could find a spring or other sources of fresh water. But just like us, they would prefer some kind of flavoured drink such as beer, ale, or cider over plain water. Ale (a type of beer made without hops) was a popular drink, but don’t think that everyone was drunk all the time because they drank a lot of alcohol. The alcohol content in their everyday ale would have been quite low, although I am sure that for special feasts they would make stronger drinks. Wine and mead (a type of honeyed beer) were mainly for the upper class.

Honey was used for a sweetener. Sugar, although being produced in Africa at the time, did not generally make it to Britain’s shores. There is some evidence of sweet treats being made for desserts but these were not on the menu regularly.

On the whole the Anglo-Saxons had a fairly healthy diet, especially in comparison to our own, with its over-indulgences in meat and sugar. Their main problem would have been getting enough to survive and on top of that, giving some to the king as food-rent for the privilege of being his subject (basically…although the king was supposed to provide things like roads and bridges and the upkeep of such, as well keep a secure and prosperous kingdom, etc).  But if the harvest was good and your animals free of disease (or attack by wolves) and the winter not too harsh and the kingdom (and therefore your holding) not in upheaval due to wars or raids, you had a good chance of sitting down to a fairly good meal every day.

Smoked eel, anyone?


Featured image by Mandy Barrow, from PrimaryHomeworkHelp

 

 

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2017 Reading Challenge: The Unputdownable Book

I am working my way through my 2017 Reading Challenge , albeit slightly chaotically, and this month I decided to read a book that is said to be unputdownable.

I am trying, as much as I can, to choose books that are generally speculative fiction for the challenge. I do read any genre, pretty much, but my aim is to keep this blog focussed on Dark Ages history (relates to my work-in-progress historical fantasy book), a little bit about my own personal writing journey, some short stories, and book reviews or author interviews. I don’t want to widen the scope of the blog too far, if I can help it.

Over at the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog she has some suggestions for the books on the list, and this science fiction thriller was one of them. Perfect!

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This is NOT a book I would pick up because of the cover (see my first post in this Reading Challenge) but once you read the book the cover makes sense, stylistically.

Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch, was published in 2016, and is about a college physics professor, Jason Dessen, who is abducted and knocked unconscious. When he wakes, he finds himself in a place that is similar to, but significantly different from, the world he knows.

He quickly realizes that the people who greet him enthusiastically think that he is a scientist who has invented a machine that would allow him to explore other, parallel Earths, and they think he is the first person to come back to them after making such a journey. In this new world, the happy family life he has come from has evaporated. Here, he is unmarried; a driven, brilliant researcher who has is doing ground-breaking work in physics.

But that is not his life….or is it? Is the world he thought he knew not his life, and this one the true one? Who was the person who abducted him, and why? And how can he get back to the one life he wants above all others?

Oh, yes, this was unputdownable – which means that I would give myself a half hour longer here and there to keep going, because I had to find out what was going on. That’s as close to binge-reading as I can get these days. But it was a great deal of fun. It’s been awhile since I got quite so caught up in compulsive page-turning.

The physics behind the invention are a little over my head, to be honest, but Crouch does a good job of giving you just enough information to help you grasp the concept, but not so much you get lost in the weeds. For books like these, I want just enough tech-talk to know that such a thing might be possible in theory, and then I don’t worry about the hows. I do have a lot of admiration for authors who write science fiction, though, especially this type of “real world” science fiction. They have to know how it works to make it believable. I think Crouch succeeded in that task in this book.

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“…physics ARE coming…”? Hmm…Nope. Awkward.

The great thing about this book is that it is not just a science fiction thriller. There is some  thought-provoking philosophy in the story as well. Just before he gets knocked out, his abductor asks Jason, “Are you happy with your life?” This  question is the foundation of the book in many ways, and it is one that we ponder about our own lives as we see Jason’s attempts to get back to the life he wants.

The book also forces you to look at the consequences of the choices we make every day: to date that person or not, to take that job or not, to give up that opportunity for career advancement at the cost of your family life, or not. In the book Jason gets to visit several different versions of himself and the life he could have had, and it makes us wonder about what those “other” lives would be like in our case, as well.

Technically speaking, from a writing point of view, for the most part I had no issues with Crouch’s writing. He certainly knows how to keep you turning the pages! The only thing that began to wear on me after awhile was use of lots of short, choppy sentences.

For example, here’s a scene from the beginning of the book, just after Jason wakes up after being abducted and is getting debriefed about his experience.

“Let’s try a different approach,” Amanda says. “What’s the last thing you remember before waking up in the hangar?” 

“I was at a bar.” 

“What were you doing there?” 

“Seeing an old friend.”

“And where was this bar?” she asks. 

“Logan Square.” 

“Okay, can you describe…?”

Her voice drops off into silence. 

I see the El. 

It’s dark.

Too quiet.

Too quiet for Chicago.

Someone is coming. 

Someone who wants to hurt me.

My heart begins to race. 

My hands sweat.

I set the glass down on the table.

“Jason, Leighton is telling me your vitals are becoming elevated.” 

Her voice is back but still an ocean away.

Is this a trick? 

Am I being messed with?

The whole book is not like this, but there is quite a lot of it, and I did find it a bit tiresome in places. But this type of short sentence structure is one trick an author can use to keep a reader barreling through a story, and is particularly effective in this kind of thriller.

A well-crafted story, with high page-turnability, and which leaves you something to think about once you have finished. I give Dark Matter five stars.


Previous posts in this series: 

A Book I Read Because I Liked the Cover

A Book I’ve Been Dying to Read

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday Short: Dust

Texas Panhandle, 1933

“Dust is comin’, mister, ain’t you heard?”

The man at the desk squinted at me, as if judging my sanity. He had every right to, seeing as I had come to this flea-bit town specifically for the dust storm, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. Or that what was coming with the dust was my particular interest.

I just slapped my money on the desk and shrugged. “Lookin’ for work. I’ve been shoveling up dust two counties over, when they was hit. Heard the wind was blowin’ this way, thought I’d try my luck.”

He scooped up the coin with a snort. “Your funeral.”

I felt that tickle on the back of my neck I get when something isn’t right. This whole town gave me that feeling, from the minute I arrived.

“Not today,” I said. Not if I can help it.

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The town folk were rankled up, too. Their eyes were tight, tempers short. All of them looking over their shoulder, checking the sky. I knew the cause even if they didn’t: a Dustman was coming, looking to scour this place clean.

The afternoon stretched out long and slow. Midday the wind kicked up, coming from the east. People rushed home, dragging screeching children behind them. I watched them from my perch at the soda fountain counter, a fierce anger seizing me at the thought of all these turned to dust, play things for the ghoul.

A creature I’d seen, that used the storm as a handy vehicle to ride in on. A cloak, if you will.

Not every dust storm had one. In fact, I hadn’t quite figured if there were more than one, but I had my suspicions. All I knew for certain is what I’d seen a month ago, when I’d been caught in the storm that had billowed over Coalvale like a coarse pillow. When it was done the town was empty of none but dust and a few people who spoke of the strange man they had seen through the gritty veil of the storm. I’d seen him too, and what I saw brought me screaming awake more than once.

People in the Panhandle were spooked, and for good reason. Two towns mysteriously emptied after a dust storm hit them, and no explanation seemed to fit.

Three nights ago I had a dream that woke me to a steely purpose, one that brought me to this town, where the wind would soon bring the dust.

Some folks said the storms were God’s judgment. I weren’t too sure about that, but the Dustman was something else entirely, I reckoned. My dream had showed me a way to stop him. Maybe the nightmares would stop, too.

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An hour later I was squinting at the sky, standing just outside of town, the wind gusting in my face. The air smelt hot and burnt. Far away, a dog barked once. On the horizon a black cloud was boiling towards the town, and I braced myself.

Lord, have mercy.

The dust hit then, all scour and grit, and I put up my handkerchief, my eyes burning.

I felt him first, felt the cold snaking through the air, cutting through the dust and heat like a knife. He whirled into shape in the midst of the storm, the dust spinning around him as the edges of his silhouette grew sharper, and then he was stepping towards me in that murky, dusty light, a slight smirk on his face.

He looked like an ordinary man, if you didn’t look close enough to see the pitiless scorn in his eyes, or the way he faded under the light. Most people never got the chance to notice, I suppose. One touch of his long, spindly fingers and they dissolved to dust right there and then.

It’s what I saw in Coalvale, the memory that haunted my dreams.

The wind died down a notch, but the dust still swirled, blocking out the sun, casting the day into gloom.

“That’s far enough,” I said. My heart hammered in my chest. My dream-directed plan seemed a flimsy one, now, made of mere vapours and hope.

He stopped, cocked his head, nostrils twitching like he was trying to scent me.

“You ain’t welcome here,” I said, gathering my courage. “Or anywhere, for that matter. I’m here to tell you your days are at an end.”

He looked me over, and I had to work not to flinch.

“From dust you came, and to dust you will return,” he said, his voice a dry, gritty whisper as he stepped towards me, his hand lifting.

My gut clenched. I had to let him get close enough.

He took one more step and I twisted around, bending over and grabbing the bucket I had brought, water sloshing over the side as I did so.

I caught a quick glimpse of his eyes widening and the smirk changing to a screech that whistled around my ears as I heaved and flung that bucket of water right at him.

This was the moment I saw in my dream; the water hitting him full force and him melting like an ice cube on a hot day in July, the edges of him collapsing inwards, mud spattering my face as I dropped the bucket.

I wiped my face, and bent down, coughing on the dust as I examined the mud pooling at my feet. Just ordinary dirt, far as I could tell.

I straightened up, spitting out grit, wondering for a moment at the strange turns of the world. From dust I came, sure enough. But no cause to go back just yet, thank you God.

I tightened the handkerchief around my face and turned back to the town, hugging myself against the wind that blew in a wild sandpaper scrape against me.

Just another drifter, looking for work.


This story is one of a series of original short stories. I hope to get more of these up on the blog, if y’all like them!

You can find the others here:

A Delicious Irony

Red

This Strange Thing Called Fear

 

Featured image: Dust bowl, from the USDA, on Flickr

What’s In a Word?

Near the beginning of my writing journey I was in a second-hand store, and as I always do, was looking at the piles of books. I checked out the non-fiction section, looking for “how-to” books on writing, and I came across what has turned out to be one of my favourite and most-used writing tool.

I present to you, with small fanfare, the big red book of deliciousness:

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The Synonym Finder was first published in 1961, this book is the 1978 revised edition. It was written by J.I. Rodale, who was a publisher, editor, and playwright. He actually is more well known for his early advocacy of sustainable agriculture and organic farming in the U.S. rather than his writing, however. His publishing empire, Rodale, Inc., published many magazines including Prevention magazine and is still putting out that magazine, and many others, today.

His other claim to fame, if you want to call it that, was that he died at the age of 72 of a heart-attack while participating as a guest on the Dick Cavett Show. Understandably, the show was never aired.

I’m not sure what prompted Rodale to write The Synonym Finder, but I am very glad he did. The book contains over one million synonyms, organized dictionary style in alphabetical order. This type of book is known as a thesaurus, and it is an invaluable tool for any writer.

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Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

Now I do realize that it is easy to find synonyms online. Or so you’d think. On a whim, I just looked up hosanna in the Mirriam-Webster Thesaurus online. That word doesn’t exist in their database. I had to retype “hosanna synonym” into Google to finally find some alternate words.

On the other hand, a quick flip to the “h’s” in my trusty book and I find:

hosanna, n. shout of praise, hallelujah, allelujah; hurrah, huzzah, cheer, whoop; song of praise, paean, laud, laudation, glorification, exaltation. 

This entry also highlights one of the reasons I love this book so much. You will note that the list of synonyms are divided by comma and semi-colons. That is because Rodale has given us three sets of synonyms for the word, divided by semi-colons, depending on the context of the sentence the writer wishes to use it in.So the first set, praise, hallelujah, allelujah;  has slightly different connotation than the second, hurrah, huzzah, cheer, whoop.  And the final set, song of praise, paean, laud, laudation, glorification, exaltation has meanings similar to the first set, but, again, slightly different all the same.

You don’t tend to get that level of subtlety in an online thesaurus. English is a tricky language, and just how tricky it is can be seen by even a cursory look into The Synonym Finder. Take the word flush, for example. You will see it is a noun, with synonyms such as blush, flooding, thrill, vigour, fever, flow, or excite. However, it is also an adjective, with synonyms such as smooth, adjacent, well-to-do or abundant. Rodale lists many more synonyms than I have given here, I use these just as examples.

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Hmmm…..according to The Synonym Finder, nope. The closest entry is synonymous, which lists words such as equivalent, parallel, similar, and corresponding.

This book is a treasure-trove of words. When I am stuck on a certain word, or have used one word too many times in a descriptive passage, or just need some inspiration, The Synonym Finder never disappoints.  I am very grateful J.I. Rodale collected these million-plus words. It must have been a massive undertaking!

I’m also appreciative, thankful, obliged, indebted, and filled with gratitude.

The Trouble with Tropes

If you are a writer worth your salt, one of the cardinal rules you must follow is to make sure you follow the submission guidelines of the publications in which you hope to be published.

Mainly these are fairly prosaic: guidelines about line spacing, font preferred, word count, type of file to send, etc.

But often I will see other recommendations, not so much about the nuts and bolts but more about the meat and bones of the story. These are equally as important to pay attention to, if you want to give your work any kind of chance at all.

Often these will mention avoiding tropes. Tropes, according to Wikipedia, are “commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative work.”

Every genre has its own tropes. Think of the hardboiled detective in mystery novels, or the swashbuckling hero in romances. Fantasy is no exception. There are many of these tropes, but just to give you an idea, here is some of the advice given to hopeful writers from Heroic Fantasy Quarterly:

Witty banter usually isn’t.

Stories that start in an inn are usually out.

Ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn.

Ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn and being hired to do a job by a mysterious individual who is clearly a sorcerer (or vampire, or sorcerer/vampire).

Double ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn and being hired to do a job by a mysterious man who is clearly a sorcerer (or vampire, or sorcerer/vampire) who then turns on the very adventurers he/she/it hired only to be thwarted by the one dwarf in the party.  In fact, toss us a dwarf curveball.  So far we’ve never seen a story with a dwarf character where that character doesn’t kick ass from beginning to end.

We are not all that interested in stories with vampires.  We feel much the same re: zombies.

Neither are we terribly keen on pirates; just remove that word and your odds go up.

There’s more, but you get the drift. (Let us all spare a moment of sympathy for editors everywhere, who have to sort through piles of drivel in order to strike gold, and who,in most cases, are doing this just for the sheer love of stories, with not a coin exchanged in compensation.)

A few of the fantasy tropes are listed here, such as the inn as meeting place, the overuse of sorcerers/vampires/zombies, the hard-as-nails dwarf. Once you start thinking about it,  if you have read any fantasy at all, you will be able to come up with quite a few more. How about:

The orphan whose mysterious past vaults him into the role of hero, sometimes (often) reluctantly. Chosen One, anyone?

The peaceful, nature loving, mysterious elves; the grumpy dwarves; the terrifying orcs/monsters; the wise wizard/mentor. 

The quest for the sacred sword/jewel/manuscript/whatever. 

The evil Empire. 

Fake-medieval Europe/England setting. 

Weird names with apostrophes. Tal’c or Ryl’d or Sh’one or whatever. (I first encountered this in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, and there, the Dragonriders were given a new name that was a shorter form of their original name, as a form of honorific that denoted they had become Dragonriders. Fair enough. But I see this so often now, and often for no reason except that it looks exotic.)

One evil twin, one good twin, separated at birth. 

The school for youngsters where they learn how to use magic.

Villain is hero’s father. 

I could go on, and likely you could think of many more.

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The scantily clad, ferocious warrior-chick is a fantasy trope I’m more than happy to say good-bye to!

It’s a bit terrifying as a writer, to be honest. How do you avoid all these clichés? They are so ingrained in our collective well of story-telling that often you find yourself using them, even though you are trying to be original.

The good news is, you don’t have to, at least, not entirely. It is true that it is easy to fall into the trope-trap, and if your story has too many of these, it is likely not going to be published. However, there are plenty of excellent stories and books being published today in which you can find more than one of these tropes and yet they still feel fresh, exciting, and original.

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“An elf, a wizard, and a giant walked into an inn…” (Horsemen and Travellers Outside an Inn, by Pieter van Os, on Wikicommons. )

Take The Name of the Wind, by Pathrick Rothfuss, for example. That book is full of standard fantasy tropes including the orphaned hero, the school for magic-learning, the vaguely medieval setting. And it even starts in an inn!  But Rothfuss takes these tropes and, through the power of strong storytelling and beautiful prose, creates a compelling and original book.

Of course, George Lucas famously studied Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” and used it as the basis of his Star Wars movie. Which became a cultural force to be reckoned with (pun intended!).

So tropes aren’t necessarily bad. Including them in a story isn’t necessarily lazy storytelling. In fact, in some cases such as The Name of the Wind, or Star Wars, readers and movie-goers have rewarded the storytellers who use them in their works.

Why? Perhaps it’s because there is something about the hero’s journey (embodied in many of the tropes) that speaks to us on a deep and subconscious level, something that resonates with the story of the backwater nobody who becomes the hero, the forgotten prince who arrives on the scene to rescue his people, the group of friends who band together and conquer the evil in their world.

The great Christian writer and philosopher, C.S. Lewis,  would explain this resonance by saying that there are deeper truths hinted at by the hero’s journey. In other words, we long to be rescued, and stories allows us to vicariously fulfill that longing, which is why they are told over and over again and continue to be popular. Lewis would say that the  story of the prince who came to rescue his enslaved people is the true story which is the foundation of all the hero stories, and it is the story that is told over and over again in the Bible, culminating in the final telling of the story of the life of Jesus.

Tropes are not necessarily bad. Half the battle is being aware of them, and the other half is using them sparingly and wisely.

So let your wizard wander into an inn. Carefully.

 

Featured image: The Wizard, by Sean McGrath, on Wikicommons

 

 

 

 

Hild of Whitby

There a few women whose stories are known from the Early Middle Ages – although, perhaps more than you think are mentioned in the scant sources of information that we have from this era. Most of those are Queens, but some are not. Hild of Whitby is one such woman, whose remarkable life ensured her story would remain to come down to us today.

Hild (sometimes called Hilda) was born to a Deiran noble family in 614 A.D.. Her father was the nephew of King Edwin, but Hild never knew him, for when she was an infant he was poisoned while they were in exile at the court of the  King of Elmet, now West Yorkshire. Edwin eventually avenged her father’s death by killing the King and annexing his territory, which I assume was not the result the Elmet King had in mind when he committed this murder.

Hild and her older sister (and mother, presumably) became part of the royal household, and was baptized along with the rest of the court when Edwin, influenced by his new wife Aethelburh of Kent, converted to Christianity in 627 A.D.

The curtain closes on Hild until 647 A.D., when she was 33. It’s likely she would have been married, as she was an eligible princess and thus useful for Edwin in making strategic alliances with his various neighbours and/or enemies. We don’t know. What we do know is that in 647 A.D. Hild is single, and heads to East Anglia to join her widowed older sister Hereswith who has become a nun in France (technically Gaul).

She spent a year in East Anglia preparing for the convent, but she never made it there. Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne asks her, instead, to come back to Northumbria. One assumes that Aidan knew her, or at least knew of her reputation of piety and intelligence. After another year, in which Bede says she “lived a monastic life, with few companions”, presumably being trained in the monastic life, Aidan appoints her as Abbess of Hereteu monastery.

Hereteu (now called Hartlepool, further south along the coast from Lindisfarne) had been founded by Heiu, the first Northumbrian woman to become a nun. But Heiu leaves soon after and Aidan fills the vacancy with Hild.

As Bede says,

Hilda, the handmaid of Christ, being set over that monastery, began immediately to order it in all things under a rule of life, according as she had been instructed by learned men; for Bishop Aidan, and others of the religious that knew her, frequently visited her and loved her heartily, and diligently instructed her, because of her innate wisdom and love of the service of God.

In other words, she was a smart cookie. After a few years, King Oswy gifted her some land, possibly as part of a vow he made in connection with his victory over Penda,  a little further south from Hartlepool. There Hild established a monastery in 657  A.D.. At the time it was called Streaneshalch, but now is known as Whitby.* Hild was now technically Abbess of both monasteries, but she lived at Streaneshalch.

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A detail from the monument of St. Hilda at Whitby. Note the five bishops peering over her shoulders! Also, she is not standing on waves, but snakes. According to legend she turned snakes into stone, and fossilized ammonites found on the shore at Whitby were proof of this. Image from Wikipedia.

Now if you know anything at all about monasteries, you should be thinking, “Wait. How can a woman become the head over a monastery?”

Ah. Good question! I have mentioned before that there were some differences between the Celtic “brand” of Christianity and that which was brought to the Island with Augustine in 597 AD from Rome when Pope Gregory sent him on a mission to convert the Angles. However, there were some of the native British (Celts) who didn’t need converting, as they had been happily practicing the faith on their own since the Romans left them to their own devices almost two hundred years before. When the Roman church finally caught up to them again, the Celtic church had developed a few inconsistencies from Rome. Not in doctrine, mainly, but in practice.

The big ones in the eyes of Rome seemed to be the tonsure and the dating of Lent, but another significant one was that it was quite common for the Celts to have double monasteries, containing both monks and nuns, living separately but with a common church in the middle at which they worshipped together.

Hartlepool was one such monastery. The fact that Hild was the Abbess over the monastery speaks both to her intelligence and her character, and it also gives us a little glimpse into the role of women in Celtic society.

The idea of double monasteries was not unknown at this time. There were some in Gaul, which was also populated by Celts, and it seems that Hild took her inspiration from both Aidan and the example of the monasteries in Gaul when she established Whitby.

The roles of  women  in Celtic societies were quite different from that of women in Greco-Romano culture. Tacitus, the Roman historian, wrote of the Celts, “There is no rule of distinction to exclude the female line from the throne or the command of the armies.” The most famous example of that would be Boudicca, Queen of the Celtic tribe known as the Iceni,  who led an uprising against the Romans in Britain in 60 or 61 A.D.

In the pagan religion of the Irish Celts, women could become priests, and I suppose it is this cultural custom that allowed for women to be the head of a double monastery in the Celtic Christian church of the time.

At any rate, Hild did an exemplary job as Abbess, from all accounts. Well, at least from Bede’s account, which is pretty much everything that we know about her. He writes,

She taught [at Whitby] the strict observance of justice, piety, chastity, and other virtues, and particularly of peace and charity; so that, after the example of the primitive Church, no one there was rich, and none poor, for they had all things common, and none had any private property. [By primitive Church, he is referring to the first Christians in the book of Acts. See Acts 2:42].Her prudence was so great, that not only meaner men in their need, but sometimes even kings and princes, sought and received her counsel; she obliged those who were under her direction to give so much time to reading of the Holy Scriptures, and to exercise themselves so much in works of justice, that many might readily be found there fit for the priesthood and the service of the altar.

One has to keep in mind that Bede, being from the Roman Christian persuasion, does generally not look too fondly on those who followed the Celtic Christian ways. In his mind, they were skirting around the edges of heresy. Therefore it is all the more remarkable when you find him praising a monk or nun (or Abbess, as in this case) who was a Celtic Christian, as he does here.**

He certainly can’t deny her influence, because in the next paragraph he tells us that under her tutelage and example, five men from Whitby became bishops, including the darling of the Roman Christians, Wilfrid, who was another fascinating figure that I will be writing about on the blog some day.

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The dramatic ruins of Whitby Abbey. This is the ruins of the 13th century Benedictine Abbey that was built on the same site as Hild’s Abbey. Her monastery would have been in the Celtic style: small wooden, thatched roof buildings that housed one of two monks/nuns each, with a larger church and other buildings such as a guesthouse, school, kitchen, etc. Unfortunately the original monastery was sacked by the Viking invaders in 867 A.D. 

Running a monastery (or two!) required more than just teaching skills, in fact, the bulk of the work would probably be more administrative. She had lands and people to manage as she kept the work of the monasteries going.  The monasteries had land on which they grew crops and raised animals, in order to feed the monks (and the poor who came to them for charity) but also for the production of vellum for the manuscripts they produced.

They would also have craftsmen who would make the liturgical vessels and the ordinary implements used by the monks in their herb gardens, kitchens, and ale or mead making endeavours.

She must have had quite the reputation at the time, for many nobles and kings came to her for advice, and would have also sent their children to her monasteries for schooling under the monks and nuns.

Ultimately it was at Whitby that King Oswy decided to hold his famous meeting with all the nobles and high-ranking churchmen of the day, in which they were going to decide once and for all whether to follow the Celtic or Roman customs of the faith.

That he would hold such an important meeting there shows the respect he had for Hild. He must have valued her advice a great deal.

She also had time for the common people, it seems, though. One of the charming stories Bede relates is that of Caedmon, the first English poet. He cared for the animals at Whitby, and through miraculous means God gave him the words of the first English Christian hymn, and it was through Hild’s encouragement that he developed his gift of song and poetry. A lover of the arts, then!

I am so grateful that Hild’s story survives. It gives us a glimpse into the life of an extraordinary woman living in difficult times, who made a substantial impact on her society.


*Fun fact about Whitby: Bram Stoker was holidaying in Whitby (the town that grew up around the Abbey) when he wandered into the library and discovered a book about Vlad the Impaler, which was his inspiration for Dracula. In the book Dracula (in the form of a large dog) comes to England after a shipwreck and bounds up the 199 steps to St. Mary’s Church, situated below the Abbey (which is on the headland looking out to sea).

**Bede does not call them Celtic Christians, he refers to them as the British, as opposed to the “English”. He is not necessarily defining them on tribal grounds but on religious. It is true that it  was mainly the Celts (the native British) who followed the Celtic Christian path, although, due to the influence of the Irish monks, the Christian Anglian kings of Northumbria practiced their faith in the Celtic style too. In order for clarity I refer to them by the term Celtic Christian rather than British.

Featured image from Wikicommons. She is portrayed in this icon as holding Whitby Abbey.