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.


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.


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.


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



The Wanderer

So, it’s the last Friday of the month and I’m supposed to have my Year of Important Books post ready. Whoops. Still reading the book…so we’ll get to it next month. In the meantime, how about a little Lord of the Rings mixed up with Anglo-Saxon history? Without further ado, I present….The Wanderer.

One of the poignant moments in Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers is the scene where King Théoden, newly restored to himself after Wormtongue’s enchantment, prepares for the upcoming battle of Helm’s Deep. Have a listen:

Wonderful! Just this little snippet made me want to go back and watch all three movies, but I digress…

The poem that Théoden quotes here comes from Tolkien, but in the book it is said by Aragon, as he introduces the Riders of Rohan to his companions. It has been condensed somewhat in the film, the original version is this:

Where now are the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?

Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?

Where is the harp on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing? 

Where is the spring and the harvest, and the tall corn growing? 

They  have passed like rain on the mountains, like wind on the meadow;

The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into Shadow.

Who shall gather the smoke of the deadwood burning? 

Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning? 

One day I am going to do a longer post about Tolkien, the Anglo-Saxons, and Aragon in particular, but for today I wanted to give you just a little tidbit, illustrated by this poem.


Ah, yes, Aragon, aka Strider, aka son of Arathorn, aka heir of Esildur, aka…well, stay tuned to the blog to find out! 

Tolkien, of course, was an Anglo-Saxon scholar, and in particular he modelled the Rohirrim after the people and culture of Anglo-Saxon Britain.

This poem that Aragon quotes is adapted from one of the poems that survive from that period, called The Wanderer. It begins like this (translated, of course, from Anglo-Saxon):

Often the solitary one 

finds grace for himself

the mercy of the Lord.

Although he, sorry-hearted,

must for a long time

move by hand [i.e. row]

along the waterways,

(along) the ice-cold sea,

tread the paths of exile. 

Events must always go as they must! 

This poem can be found in the 10th century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry called the Exeter Book, but many scholars believe that this poem existed long before then in oral tradition, and could date back to the 6th century.


Facsimile of the first page of The Wanderer from the Exeter Book (from Wikipedia). This looks like it is written like prose, not poetry, but if you look carefully you will see extra spaces between words, which is the indication of a half-line division of a line of poetry. Also you will see some dots between words, which is also meant to show other half-line breaks. 


The poem itself is about a warrior who is wandering in exile, having lost his liege lord, kin, and comrades in battle, defending his homeland from attack. It is melancholy in nature, which comes as no surprise – for in the Anglo-Saxon culture with its emphasis on close family ties and allegiance to a lord, to be alone in a strange land with no kin or lord to protect you is almost a fate worse than death.

In the first stanza quoted above, you can see a fascinating mix of the old Saxon religion and beliefs and the new Christian ones. It shows a culture in the midst of transition from the old ways to the new. The opening lines show that the warrior is looking for mercy from God, but at the end of the stanza you see “Events must always go as they must!” 

When you look up this poem you will find that there are many different ways to translate the Anglo-Saxon original, so that last line I can also find translated as, “Fate is established!” or “Fate has been decreed.”

This is the Saxon concept of wyrd, the inexorable fate that binds every person, that cannot be denied. So the poem begins with both the Christian concept of God’s mercy and the Saxon idea of fate. And you will see these two world-views juxtaposed throughout the poem.

In the midst of The Wanderer is the part that Tolkien adapted for The Two Towers. It comes in the poem after the warrior has contemplated the brevity of life, “as now in various places throughout this middle-earth walls stand, blown by the wind, covered with frost, storm-swept the buildings.” After meditating on this the warrior says,

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? 

Where the giver of treasure? 

Where are the seats at the feast? 

Where are the revels in the hall? 

Alas for the splendour of the prince! 

How that time has passed away,

dark under the cover of night, 

as if it had never been! 

It’s all a bit gloomy, I’ll admit, but I can imagine the effect of the scop singing or reciting this poem on the people gathered in the mead hall, snug against the winter storms, surrounded by their kin and secure in their own place in the world. It would have given both a sobering contemplation of the fate of the exiled stranger, and the delicious relief that they were not him. Kinda like the effect of a thunderstorm when you are in bed, you feel extra cozy knowing that you are  not outside in the storm itself.

The Wanderer ends with the counsel, “It is better for the one who seeks mercy, consolation from the father in the heavens, where, for us, all permanence rests.” The Christian world-view has obviously won out for the original writer of the poem. Of course there are other speculations that one could make, for example, that some scribe along the way altered the poem, adding more overtly Christian elements than were originally in there. It’s hard to say, and I guess we will probably never know.

One of the best ways to understand a culture is to read their literature. Unfortunately, as the Anglo-Saxon culture was in many ways an oral culture, we have lost so much of their stories. I’m so glad this poem survived to open up to us the world of the mead-hall, and to enable us to meet the exiled wanderer, journeying alone through the icy mist.

I took my translation of The Wanderer from Anglo-Saxons.net. Hop on over there if you want to see the whole poem in Anglo-Saxon along with the English translation.

And just for fun, click here if you want to hear it read in the original Anglo-Saxon.


Featured photo: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich, from WikiCommons








Review: Edwin: High King of Britain, by Edoardo Albert

Edoardo Albert is an historian and author, and this book (published in 2014) is the first one of a fiction series titled The Northumbrian Thrones. Other books in the series include Oswald: Return of the King, and Oswiu:King of Kings. Albert has also written other non-fiction history books, notably Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom, co-written by one of the directors of the Bamburgh Research Project (the archeological dig that is ongoing at Bamburgh).


The author, Edoardo Albert

In other words, this author is right up my alley, and I dug into this book with a great deal of relish. And he didn’t disappoint! Edwin: High King of Britain is a fascinating glimpse at this ancient king, written in an easily accessible and at times lyrical fashion, introducing us to a complex and interesting man and the times in which he lived.

Edwin’s reign fell a few decades before the events in my own trilogy. He was born in 616 AD and died in battle in 633 AD. He is an important king in Northumbria for many reasons, not the least of which being that he is the first Christian king of Northumbria. I will touch on this later.

The book begins with Edwin in exile. He was the son of Ælle, King of Deira (the southern part of Northumbria), and when Ælle dies, Æthelfrith, Edwin’s brother-in-law and King of Bernicia (the northern part of Northumbria) takes over as King of Deira as well, being the first to unite the two kingdoms into Northumbria as a whole. Naturally Edwin is a threat to his claim on Deira’s throne, and so Edwin has been fleeing for his life, finding refuge at various places and finally ending up at the court of Rædwald, king of the East Angles, south of Deira. But as the book opens word comes to Edwin that Æthelfrith, known by the nickname the Twister, has convinced Rædwald to kill Edwin in exchange for treasure and almost as importantly, an alliance with the powerful Æthelfrith.


I love the cover art of the book. This stylized boar is done in the fashion of images typical of Anglo-Saxon art of the times. 

Albert pulls us into Edwin’s world right away. One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is trying to drop readers into the setting and give enough of the backstory so that they can begin to have a sense of the world without being overwhelmed by dry facts and information. I like the way Albert handled this, it didn’t feel forced in an info-dump kind of way, and it got me immediately immersed into Edwin, his world, and the dilemmas he faced.

And there are plenty of dilemmas. Edwin is concerned not only for his own life, but also the lives of his sons, who as his heirs are in danger from Æthelfrith’s sword as well. He seeks a way to gain back the Deiran throne, and to remove the threat Æthelfrith poses. And once he succeeds and gains the title of High King of Northumbria himself, there is the challenge of keeping his throne safe from the threats of those who would claim it.

Edwin’s first wife, the mother of his sons, has long since died, and in appropriate kingly fashion he seeks an alliance with the powerful kingdom of Kent by marrying Æthelburh, sister of the King. And this introduces another challenge to Edwin – the introduction of Christianity into his kingdom, for Kent is a Christian kingdom, and his new bride a follower of Christ.

Accompanying Æthelburh on her journey north to her new home is Paulinus, a priest of the Roman Church and James, a deacon. They are determined to begin a missionary work among the pagan Northumbrians, starting with the King, for they know that if the King embraces Christ his people will likely follow.

This journey of Edwin from pagan to Christian is the heart of Albert’s book, I feel. Edwin understands the import of his decision, and he wavers for some time as he wrestles not only with his understanding of the new faith but the implications of casting aside the old gods. The story of Edwin’s conversion is chronicled in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and Albert dramatizes Bede’s account well. I enjoyed the way Edwin’s pagan priest, Coffi, was portrayed here. His disillusionment at the silence of his gods which led to his embrace of Christ fleshed out Bede’s story in a satisfactory way.

It is easy to look back at stories such as Bede’s in a cynical way. How much of what he said was truth, and how much was propaganda? When the King converts and his men convert with him, how much of that was real faith and how much political opportunism? By making Edwin, his wife and counsellors come alive in this story, Albert gives us a plausible and realistic picture of this most important moment of British history – when the Northumbrian kingdom began it’s first steps as a Christian one. I get tired of books that portray the introduction of Christianity as something negative, bringing  repression and disaster to a previously wonderful pagan world. Of course with change comes both the positive and negative, and I’m not interested in whitewashing history either. But surely the people that set aside their pagan faith did so for many reasons, and we can’t discount that for many, an important reason was their appreciation of that new faith itself and its message of love, grace, and forgiveness.

Albert is a good writer, and there is some lovely prose in this book, especially in some of the scenes where the experience of faith is brought alive, like this  account of Edwin’s baptism:

There, beneath the water, he had felt as if he were suddenly able to breathe again; as if a tight metal band that had been slowly constricting his chest as he grew older, tightening so slowly that he never even realized it was there, had been released. He had been a slave and he had never even known it. 

Besides this journey of Edwin from pagan to Christian, the other thing I really enjoyed in this book was the portrayal of Penda, introduced here as a warlord to King Cearl of Mercia. The early life of Penda is somewhat murky in historical accounts, and so I enjoyed this presentation of Penda’s life which gives a satisfying background to this most important King of 7th century Britain, a wily and powerful man  who is a worthy adversary to the Northumbrian kings.

If you are at all interested in a a well-written, entertaining and exciting history of an important king of Britain, Edwin: High King of Britain, will definitely satisfy.



Bamburgh: Seat of Kings

Last year on the blog I  highlighted one of the major settings for my novel, that being Lindisfarne, and I thought it was time to  give you a glimpse at another one.

Bamburgh (pronounced bam-brah, not bam-burg) is located on the north-east coast of Britain, about a half-hour drive south of Lindisfarne, and in fact you can see Holy Island from the upthrust rock formation which mirrors the one at Lindisfarne, and upon which Bamburgh Castle sits. In between Lindisfarne and Bamburgh there are some spectacular beaches and coastline!


Can you find Bamburgh there, on the upper right? That little axe-shaped island to the north is Lindisfarne.

Bamburgh was originally called Din Guardi, and was the seat of the British kings of Byrneich, from which the latter-day Bernicians drew their name. The invading Angles, led by Ida, conquered the kingdom in 547 AD. His grandson Æthelfrith renamed the fortress Bebbanburgh, after his wife Bebba, and eventually that name morphed into the present-day name of Bamburgh.

Bebbanburgh in the 7th century in some ways would have looked very different than it does now, and in others it is exactly the same. The landscape hasn’t changed, featuring the rocky dolerite outcropping which commands the magnificent view of the country all around it, the churning North Sea lapping at the sweeping beaches below the outcrop, the sandy dunes that line the beach.  The major difference, of course, would be the castle. Present-day Bamburgh has a castle on top of the rocky promontory that is the major feature of the area. The core of this castle was built during Norman times and expanded throughout the following centuries to become the fortress you see today.


A good look at the rocky outcrop that Bamburgh sits upon. Photo by Glen Bowman, on WikiCommons



Some of that spectacular coastline and beach around Bamburgh. Photo on WikiCommons.

But in the 7th century the building on top of the outcrop would have been an Anglo-Saxon hall, the seat of the king. We can have a good idea of what that hall would have looked like, as it would have been the typical “mead hall” of Anglo-Saxon literature such as Beowulf.

These structures were long, narrow buildings built of wood, with thatched roofs (or wood), two doors (one on either end) and perhaps some shuttered windows. The interior would have been dark, and smoky, with the hearth fire in the middle and perhaps a couple smaller fires inside. There were no chimneys, the smoke would filter out through the thatching, cough cough! There might have been a raised platform at one end, where the king and his family and retainers would sit separately from the rest, which might also included the king’s throne. There also might have been a separate room in the hall used as the king’s residence. You  note all the “mights” in my description – unfortunately since these halls were made of wood, not much archeological evidence survives to give historians really clear pictures of what they were like. But there are some hints in Beowulf and other places that give us a bit of an idea.

Bamburgh Castle today has a replica of an Anglo-Saxon stone chair, based on a 9th century carved stone fragment found on the grounds in the 19th century. This “chair” could be a throne, of a “gift-stool” where the king would sit to be presented with tribute, and it features the typical Anglo-Saxon design work of the times.


Bamburgh’s stone chair. Thanks to author Matthew Harffy, who graciously shared his pictures of his trip to Bamburgh with me, including this one! 

Long benches lined the walls of the hall, where the king’s thegns and retainers would feast and drink, and even sleep at times!  Ale would be plentiful, and the more high-class mead (honeyed wine). It was a gathering place for the king and his people where battles and strategy would be discussed, victories would be celebrated, and tribute would be both given to the king and shared by him.

There is some discussion in historical circles about the presence or absence of a town or village at Bamburgh during Anglo Saxon times.  In my books I have placed a village there, at the foot of the outcrop, because Bede mentions the “town” being threatened by fire during an attack against it by Penda in 651 AD, saved by miraculous intervention by Aidan. So I feel justified in my imaginary village!

After the Viking invasions the Northumbrian kingdom was destroyed in 867 AD, but the Northumbrian kings still held this fortress as sub-rulers under them, until 993 AD, when the Vikings destroyed it, exactly 200 years after their first invasion at Lindisfarne.

All in all Bamburgh is a fascinating place, with a long and important history. I will definitely be visiting here the next time I go to Britain!


Feature photo by Michael Hanselmann, on WikiCommons



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.

The Trouble With Names

One of the blessings of writing historical fiction is that you can include the actual historical events and people of the time you are writing about. However, this is also one of the curses! I discovered this as I wrote The Traveller’s Path, my trilogy set in Dark Ages Britain.

The blessing side of that coin is that historical events can be a great source of plot points for novelists. While digging into the history of Britain in the 7th century, I found some interesting events that provided rich details and background that I otherwise wouldn’t have come up with, I am sure. For example, King Oswald was slain at the Battle of Maserfield, and his head and arms were placed on spikes as offerings to the victorious king Penda’s pagan gods. Urp. Yuck, right? Well, if you think it’s not very pleasant for you to think about, put yourself in the place of Oswy, Oswald’s half-brother, the Christian king of Bernicia. What would he have felt about it, do you think? A bit of a slap in the face, perhaps?

Out of juicy details like that a writer can come up a bunch of character motivation ideas. And having real-life timelines to work around saves you from having to make up your own, which can be very handy.

However, it is equally true that having to use actual historical facts and people in your books can cause a bit of difficulty to the writer, as well. Let me show you what I mean.

I discovered early on in my research that, although there are broad strokes of information known about life in the 7th century, such as the names of kings and queens, some place names, some battles, etc, there is much that is very much unknown. The broad structure of the society is understood, with the coerls at the bottom and the kings at the top, and the rest of the society, the thegns, eorldomen, and the like, falling in-between in a graduated line of ever-increasing status. Okay, gotcha. But what about details such as, what did the women do all day? What was a typical day like for a coerl as opposed to an eorldoman? How did their economy work? Coins were fairly rare, so a barter economy, but still…What about the children? What did they do? I mean, obviously everyone worked  hard to survive, farming and hunting and making clothes and whatnot. But details? Some of this is mere conjecture and frustrating for a novelist. However, as Diana Gabaldon says, what you don’t know you can make up, so, fair enough.

One of the biggest difficulties that I faced early on, however, was the trouble with names. Take, for example, the royal seat of the Bernician kings, the fortress known today as Bamburgh. This originally was a fort of the native Britons, and called by them, Din Guardi. When the Angles invaded, and Ida, the Anglic King conquered the Britons, he renamed it Bebbanburgh (or Bebbanburg) in honour of his wife, Bebba. That has now morphed into today’s name of Bamburgh. So, what name should I use in my novel? Well, I have decided to stick with the name that would have been common in that time, Bebbanburg. The spelling of that varies, so you just have to pick one and be consistent.

Greater difficulty came as I wrote about Iona, the most influential Celtic Christian monastery of the time, situated on the north-east coast of Gr. Britain. The original Celtic name for this has been lost in the mists of time, some speculate it was Eoa, Ie, or even I Cholaim Cille (basically, the “island of Colum” or Columba, the first Abbot to establish a church there). In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede called it by the Latin name of Hii. Keeping in mind that I want my book to be as historically accurate as possible, while still making it readable for modern people, what on earth should I call this place in my book? Clearly Iona is out, that is too modern. But the others are unpronounceable to us. After some thought I decided to use Hii. Good enough for Bede, good enough for me. Even though I know that’s a strange name to our ears.

This discussion of Iona brings up another tricky problem of names. Today, we would place Iona in Scotland. However, in the 7th century, the Scotti was actually the name the Romans gave to the British tribes living there, whom we would call the Irish today. Yup, back then the Irish were actually known as the Scots, and the kingdom that Iona was situated in was called Dál Riata (or Dalriata or Dalraida. Sigh. See what I mean?). So, to be historically accurate I would have to completely confuse my readers. So, I fudged a little on this one. Because my main character is from the present time, he can call the monks Irish all he likes. I do not have any of the 7th century characters call them Irish, however. They are referred to as the British (meaning the native British tribes which included the Welsh, the Irish and the Picts), or the Dál Riatan Scots.

One of the biggest name difficulties came with, well, names. As in names of people. Unfortunately, the Saxons and Angles of the time did not come with familiar names such as Matthew, Mark, or John. No. More like Heahbeorth, Seoca, or Winedaeg. And to top it off, names like the last one, with the “ae” should properly be spelt with an “æ”, to be strictly correct. You see my problem? The Irish Celts are not much better, with their Caeoimhin, Fercetrniu, or Guiare. And then we have the Picts, whose names include Eddarrnonn, Ufeichir, or my personal favourite, Bliesblituth.

Readers do not like unpronounceable names, and I understand. I don’t much like them either. So the best I could do was to pick some authentic names from the ones available that weren’t too difficult for people. Names like Nectan, Celyn, and Siward. Not familiar, no, but at least the reader doesn’t have a mental breakdown every time he or she reads it!

Hah! Comic courtesy of xkcd, http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/names.png

Hah! Comic courtesy of xkcd, http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/names.png

One more difficulty raised its head as I put names to the people in my book: some of those people already came with names! In other words, they are real people who lived in the time and place I wrote about. People like Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne. Or Talorcan, Oswy’s nephew who was fostering with the Picts as the story opens. Those names aren’t too bad. But one of my real dilemmas cane along with Oswy himself. You see, his older brother is named Oswald. And his cousin, the sub-king of the kingdom to the south of Oswy’s, is named Oswine. As I looked into the list of kings in the various kingdoms of that period, I saw this more than once. The Angles and Saxons had a thing about alliteration when it came to names. Like the successive Kings of Essex, from 527 AD to 617 AD: Sledda, Saebert, Sexred, and Saeward.

Confusing. I know there will be readers who will wonder why I gave them such similar names. But as those are their actual names, I don’t have much choice.

This is just a little taste of the trouble with names when it comes to historical fiction. All part of the challenge, and all part of the fun!

The Staffordshire Hoard

On July 5, 2009, Terry Herbert was sweeping his metal detector over the field belonging to farmer Fred Johnson in central England, located just off the ancient Roman road known today as Watling Street. His detector beeped in one corner of the field, and he started to dig. I imagine he had done this exercise countless times before. I can only put myself in his shoes, but likely every time he began to dig it was with tempered optimism. However, this time, his shovel began to unearth something extraordinary – small pieces of gold, twisted and broken, clearly Anglo-Saxon in origin.

Terry Herbert had just found the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest amount of Ango-Saxon artifacts ever discovered. It consisted of some 3,500 pieces which came from hundreds of different objects. It quickly became apparent the objects were all military in nature – sword hilts, scabbard pendants, a cheek piece from a helmet, etc. Only three objects were non-military, and they were religious in nature, including a twisted golden cross.

I was deep into the writing of The Traveller’s Path in July of 2009, immersed into the world of 7th century Britain, so you can be sure this news item made me sit up and pay attention. Very quickly pictures began to circulate of the objects, revealing some extraordinary pieces.

Even a quick glance at the objects found will help you to understand just how skilled the Anglo-Saxon metalsmiths were. I mean, just look at these:

Cheek piece from a helmet

Cheek piece from a helmet – not cleaned up yet. It’s made of gold


Piece from a sword hilt. This is pretty much what it looked like when it came out of the ground – see the dirt on it? Note also the reflective nature of the garnet inlay – achieved by the waffle-like texture of the gold underneath it.


Detail from a seahorse or horse figure. The whole thing is 1.6″ high.

Part of a sword scabbard

Part of a sword scabbard

You look at these things and you can’t help but revise your opinion of the “Dark” ages, right? Not so backward and uncultured as you might think?

Various theories abound as to how this buried treasure ended up in this place. It’s location provides a clue – it is slightly west of Tamworth, the ancient seat of the Mercian kings, and just off the ancient Roman road. At that time objects such as these would have been booty from a battle, stripped from the enemy and taken to be melted down and re-used for your own battle swag. Perhaps this was stolen treasure of one of the Mercian thegns or aethlings who lived in Tamworth, perhaps even the king’s own hoard? Maybe it belonged to Penda of Mercia, the most powerful king Mercia ever had, the staunch rival of Oswy of Bernicia. As to why it was hidden in the ground, well, maybe the warrior who took it was being pursued, and he stopped to bury it there, intending to come back for it later. Alternatively, it could have been a ritual burial, an offering to the gods.

But there it lay, undisturbed for centuries, until Terry Herbert’s shovel brought it to light. If you’re wondering, the whole thing was valued at $5.3 million dollars, and Terry got half. Not bad for a day’s work….

There is a lifetime’s worth of work to be done on all the objects in terms of research and study. One turn of Herbert’s shovel unearthed more Anglo-Saxon objects than had ever been found before, the second-largest one being the Sutton Hoo ship burial, excavated in Kent in 1939. The Hoard is now at the Birmingham Museum, along with an interactive display of life in Anglo-Saxon times. Yet another place on my ever-growing list of places to visit when I get to England next!

How I wish I could have been there on that July day to see this incredibly treasure come out of the ground, to be the first person to touch it since that unknown person buried it so long ago. Wow. It makes me want to get a metal detector and head off to England to see what I could find. Who knows what else is buried under some farmer’s field, just waiting to be found again?

Does this give you the goosebumps too? What kind of treasure would YOU like to find? Love to hear from you….