Ecgfrida, I’m Home!

In the post What’s for Dinner, Ecgfrida?, about food in the Dark Ages, I mentioned that one of the important things I needed to get right when I began to research and write my novel set in 7th century Britain was the food they ate.

However, even before I looked at what they ate, I did a lot of research on where they lived. And, like all things Dark Ages, this whole area of research is at turns fascinating and frustrating, especially to a novelist who has to write about the spaces her characters call home.

Once again, there is not a lot of existing material from that time period to give us many clues about this. Mainly because, for the most part, the houses and buildings were built out of wood. There are a few stone buildings surviving from that time period (more about them later) but your average, everyday dwelling was made from wood with either timber or wattle and daub walls. Such materials do not survive the test of time, never mind the raiding of the marauding Vikings, with their penchant for burning and looting.

This means that archeologists are left with impressions of buildings, only. In particular, they find things like the post holes (or even just the impression of post holes)  from the wooden posts which made up the frame of the building, or the ashes and other indications of the hearth fire.

And a word about “villages” or “towns”… there were no such things, for the most part, although this is also a matter of some debate (remember, I’m not a historian, so feel free to quibble, but this is my understanding from the research I have done). People would naturally gather around the centres of power, such as the kings’ halls, or powerful thegns, or major ecclesiastical centres. So, for example, at Bebbanburg, where King Oswy had his hall and the influential monastery of Lindisfarne was close by, there would have been a village of sorts, a centre for trading and commerce. But out in the countryside, people would live in “holdings” – a gathering of extended family members, under the lordship of the most powerful of those, where the main source of activity was agriculture. The concept of a town where a whole lot of unrelated people lived in close proximity to one another would have been a fairly exotic one in those times.

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West Stowe Anglo-Saxon Village is located on the spot of an actual Anglo-Saxon village dating from the 5-7th century. Here archeologists have reconstructed several buildings, trying out various interpretations of what the buildings may have looked like based on the evidence they have found.  In the reading I’ve done it seems like the style of building shown in the foreground is not as likely as once thought. Mainly because the thatch on the roof will rot because of the contact with the ground.  Image from wikicommons

It seems that the buildings in general were fairly small, mostly one room, and generally with no second floor (although there is speculation now that some of the buildings actually might have been two-story). The mead halls were an exception, I’ll cover those later, too. But people’s houses were quite simple, for the most part.

One thing that is quite clear from the archaeological evidence is that many of the buildings featured a sunken pit of about three feet below ground level. There is some speculation about what this looked like and the purpose of it. It seems likely that in many cases the houses had a wooden floor, and the pit area was used either for storage, or even filled with straw which would provide some heat as it rotted during the winter months, giving the inhabitants a type of central heating system.

The hearth was often raised, and found in the centre of the house, where it would provide both warmth and the place to cook food. There were also separate cook houses close by the mead halls, where the thegns and kings could cook the large amounts of food and bread needed for feasting.

Windows were not common, and when they were used, they were not glass, for the most past. Vellum would be used as a window “pane”, and shutters could also be employed to keep in the warmth during the cold winter nights.

Chimneys were not a feature of the buildings. The roofs were thatch, and the smoke would escape from a small hole in the roof, or diffused through the thatch. The hearth fire would lend some light, as would tallow (animal fat) candles, but still, the interior would be both dark and smoky. I imagine most people would have a cough, especially the women, who would spend the most time indoors preparing meals and caring for small children.

To escape the gloom and smoke, people would do as many of their chores outside as possible, whenever the weather allowed. It’s likely the houses would have had some kind of porch or area under overhanging eaves where people could sit and repair clothing or furniture, weave cloth, or make things.

The walls could be either  timber or wattle and daub. Wattle and daub is thin, coppiced wood woven together with the chinks filled with a mixture of dung, clay, and straw (rotting straw, manure walls, smoke and sweat….the odours in a typical house must have been, shall we say, interesting….). The wattle and daub would have been a good insulator, at any rate. Any chinks which still allowed the wind to get through could have been covered by tapestries or other wall hangings.

It all sounds very crude to our ears, and indeed it was in many ways. But it probably wasn’t quite as crude as you might think. The Anglo-Saxons were master builders, and loved making beautiful things. To the extent that they could, their dwellings and the furning in it would have been embellished with carvings, paint, or, for the very wealthy, even adorned with gold. We know this from some of the descriptions of the mead halls found in poetry such as Beowulf.

Here’s a description of the mead hall, called Heorot, from that poem:

The men did not dally; they strode inland in a group
Until they were able to discern the timbered hall,
Splendid and ornamented with gold.
The building in which that powerful man held court
Was the foremost of halls under heaven;
Its radiance shone over many lands. (lines 306-11)

Even accounting for some literary licence, this gives you a bit of an idea that the mead hall of the Anglo-Saxons was an impressive place, built to show off the wealth and power of the king or thegn who had built it. Rich tapestries and intricate carvings would adorn the walls and wooden posts, and also along the walls the treasures taken from vanquished enemies such as mail, swords, helmets, and the like, would be displayed.

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Tolkien modelled his  Rohirrim on the culture of the Anglo-Saxons (he was an Anglo-Saxon scholar, don’t forget). Here is Peter Jackson’s take on the Golden Hall of Edoras, which Tolkien based on Beowulf’s description of Heorot. Image from Middle Earth Architecture

The Anglo-Saxons did build some buildings out of stone, and amazingly, there are a few of these at least partially surviving in Britain today. For the most part these structures are churches. You can see an example of one in Escomb, built somewhere between 670-675 AD.

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Escomb church, located in County Durham. Much of the stone to build the church came from the nearby abandoned Roman fort in nearby Binchester. In fact, on the south wall you can see a brick with the words LEG VI (Sixth Legion) set upside down! On the south wall you can see a 7th century Anglo-Saxon sundial. Amazing. The building fell into disrepair over the centuries but thankfully was restored in the late 1800s. This church is definitely on my ever-expanding bucket list of places to see in Britain. Image from wikicommons

So, to sum up, the Anglo-Saxons in the 7th century would have had small, cosy (!) houses, along with a central place to gather with the community in the larger centres.  They would have taken pride in their dwellings, decorating them with as much largesse as their wealth allowed. In some cases that could make for a richly decorated hall, and in others, maybe one simple tapestry or tanned hide to hang over the drafty spot in the wall.

There’s a lot more to think about when we think of the dwelling of the times. What furniture would they have? How would they store things? Did they have locks on their doors? What about a latrine?

But I’ll have to leave those for another day, perhaps…


Featured image: Another one of the reconstructed houses at West Stowe Village. Image from wikicommons

 

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Fiction Feature: Chasing the Prize

This year I am being more intentional about featuring some of my original short stories here on the blog. This week’s story was a fun one to write. After all, who doesn’t like writing (and reading) about dinosaurs?

Chasing the Prize

by L.A. Smith

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Photo by Phil Harris, on Wikicommons

Jayda scanned the sky, for the thousandth time.

“Where do you think Stewart is?” Doug peered behind them, a sudden wind whipping his coat around him. He snatched at it and hastily zippered it up as the rain began to fall.

Jayda shrugged. Her rivals who were chasing the prize held no interest to her. She would find it first. She had to.

A pterodactyl. Could it really be?

“We should find shelter.” Riao, their guide, spoke from the back of their boat, where he manned the motor.

“Not yet.”

“Come on, we’re going to get soaked!” Doug said.

“It won’t last long. Keep going. We’ll stop if it goes longer than an hour.” Jayda had no intention of stopping, but she wasn’t telling them that.

In her pocket she felt a small vibration, and she pulled out her phone, surprised. They should be out of cell phone range by now. She sheltered it from the downpour to read the text.

This is crazy. We should talk. It was from Bryan.

Anger flared. Just her luck that the last message she got from civilization would be from her estranged husband. Seemed a fitting end to this crappy week.

But maybe her luck would change soon.

•••

After two hours, with no signs of the rain letting up, Jayda was forced to admit defeat, and they pulled off at a small inlet off the main river. They set up their tent, stringing a tarp over it to help deflect the worst of the rain.

Jayda watched the rain sheet down, and Doug sat down beside her.

“Maybe it doesn’t fly in the rain.”

“Who knows. Maybe it prefers to fly in the rain. Not like anyone is an expert on pterodactyl behaviour nowadays.”

“True.” He peered at the river, looking back the way they had come. “No one has passed us, anyway.”

“No. But that thing could be anywhere. Knowing my luck Stewart might get the scoop, after all.” Anxiety flared at the thought, and she stuffed it down with an effort.

“Aw, come on. We’ll see it first. The million bucks is ours. I know it.”

Darkness fell, sudden and complete, like it did in the tropics. Howler monkeys hooted close by, and further away some other monkeys screeched. At least it sounded like monkeys.

In the brief blurry video that had stunned the world the pterodactyl hadn’t made a sound, but the tour boat survivors swore they had heard a deafening screech before it had appeared, knocking two of them into the water. They had disappeared without a trace into the murky Amazon.

Doug froze, listening. “Crap. This place is creepy.” He blew out a breath and got up. “We should get some sleep, get an early start tomorrow.”

Jayda didn’t comment, and Doug soon walked away, his footsteps swallowed up in the jungle noises of birds and monkeys and insects. Even at night, this place was loud.

She doubted she would sleep much. She was so close.

Her marriage had fallen apart, she had lost her job at the Tribune. The million dollar prize for the first verified footage of whatever the tourists had seen was part of the tug that drove her on, but the bigger part was the drive to succeed. She had been on a downward spiral for so long. This challenge felt like the right way to turn that around.

***

 “Here,” Raio said, gesturing at a narrow channel. “This is where they saw it.” His face was placid, but Jayda saw fear flash through his eyes.

She didn’t blame him. Her stomach was in knots, too, as he steered the boat into the channel, the trees thick around them. In some spots they blocked out the sky completely.

Jayda bit back her frustration. If she couldn’t get a clear picture, this was all for nothing.

Doug’s tuneless nervous whistle scraped along her nerves, but she ignored it. She needed him. With her pictures and his writing talent, and the fame of being the first to verify the stories, their book would be a best-seller.

That would show him. Bryan’s book had been a mediocre success, at best.

They had travelled an hour down the channel when a sudden loud screech split the air, seconds before the creature appeared. Crested head, huge leathery wings, and a wicked serrated beak. Flashing impressions only, as Jayda dived to the bottom of the boat to escape it as it swooped down over the boat.

The camera. The thing had disappeared, but the screech deafened them again and Jayda twisted, scrabbling for her camera, scanning the narrow patch of sky above.

There. It was coming back, an arrow aimed right at them. Jayda took the shots as it plummeted. It’s wicked beak snapped just over her head, and she hastily flattened herself to avoid the dangling hooked claws.

“Look!” Doug pointed at the trees, at a huge mass of vines and sticks wedged between two thick branches.

A head popped over the edge: the twin of the pterodactyl, only smaller. Jayda pointed and aimed, taking the picture. Got it. 

The adult completed it’s clumsy turn, aiming at them again.

“Go, go!” Doug yelled at the guide.

She got a couple more pictures as Raio fumbled with the rudder, steering them away and gearing the motor up in to high speed.

She caught a last glimpse of the thing as it flapped clumsily back on the nest and then the trees blocked the view.

The glow of their success carried Jayda down the river until her phone buzzed again, at the same spot as before.

Please. I love you.

Doug saw her scowl, and looked over her shoulder before she shoved the phone in her pocket.

“Maybe you should give the guy a chance.”

A dull ache filled her at the thought of the tangle she and Bryan had made of their marriage. He loved her? He should act like it.  She shook her head. “It’s impossible.”

Doug snorted. “Impossible? We just saw a freaking pterodactyl. I’d say you had better redefine impossible. God moves in mysterious ways, and all that.”

“Hah.”

Rain started to fall again, a peaceful splatter this time. Jayda hugged her chest, breathing in the rich scents of the rainforest, the noisy chatter of birds and monkeys punctuating their passage as they slipped down the river.

They were going to pick up some supplies, send the pictures off, and then head back, to see if they could get more. Get a jump on the scientists that were bound to flood into the area.

It would be awhile before they got home. A month, maybe. It would be complicated when she got back, trying to navigate the book deals, the interviews. Trying to figure out what to do about Bryan.

Maybe the time away would be what they needed for a restart.

She peered down at her camera, looking through the pictures, thrilling again at the sight of the strange, otherworldly creature. Mysterious ways.

She found herself smiling, sadness evaporating along with the rain, hope flaring for the first time in weeks.

Maybe Doug was right. Maybe anything was possible, after all.


You can find some more of my short stories at the following links:

More

Life for Life

Dust

A Delicious Irony

Red

This Strange Thing Called Fear

 

Featured photo: The First Draft, by mpclemens, on flickr

Fiction Feature: More

More

Matt was just getting off the subway when he saw her. It was rush hour, the people jostling and frantic, ejecting from the car like so much human vomit. And that was just about how Matt felt at the end of the work week.

His briefcase snagged on the door, slowing him down, and he looked back, to see what had happened. But instead, his eyes lit on her, way past the surging crowd, almost swallowed up in the dark of the tunnel beyond.

She knelt with her hands caught in the fur of a shaggy dog’s neck, and it was something about the way that dog was looking at her that caught his eye, or maybe it was the way she was looking at it? Matt couldn’t explain the sensation that pricked at him with a thousand tiny fingers.

He froze, seeing her golden hair that shouldn’t be shining so in the darkness, wonder unfurling like a blossom, and then he was jostled, snapped back into the human stream. When he looked again, she was gone.

A split second of inattention, that’s all it took.

He glimpsed the dog, though, weaving through the crowds, heading out the exit with the rest.

The tingle faded. A harsh curse in his ear made him realize he was standing still, got him moving again.

He forgot her in the bustle of life, the wearisome numbness of work and deadlines and pressure, until three days later, when he saw her again.

The weekend this time, walking home from the grocery store with bags dangling from his hands, no more thought in his head but to get home, put his feet up, watch the game.

The setting sun bathed the city with its last luminescence, everything aglow with the fading of day.

And there she was, just ahead. He knew it from her hair, from the golden strands that held the fading light. She walked slowly, with measured grace, and with his first glimpse his pace quickened, like his body knew before his mind that he had to catch up.

But he couldn’t. The people on the sidewalk, families and hipsters and geeks, became obstacles that blocked and delayed and harried his steps.

Just before she faded into the crowd, she turned back and looked at him, right at him and through him, and he felt that tingle again, stronger and deeper than before; everything ripe with possibilities and charged with meaning.

He heard something, too; a song, bells? Faint, and chiming. Her eyes were the green of mossy woods, and he felt the weight of them, just for a second, and then she turned, and was gone.

A word wafted through his mind.

More.

He saw her again, two days later, and again, a week after that. Brief glimpses. It was driving him crazy. Especially because every time, he forgot about her right after, until his eyes snagged on her and it all came back, the ache of it, and then she would turn a corner, or the bus he was on would whiz past. Or, maddeningly, the elevator door closed in his face just as he glimpsed her walking by, her head turning to look at him.

That time, though, he clenched his fists and fixed her in his mind, and he held on to her for a few seconds. Then the elevator door opened, his boss walked in, and just like that she was gone from his mind as thoroughly as she had disappeared from his sight.

Later, he sat on his balcony in the warm summer night, listening to the sounds of the city murmur around him, a cold drink in his hand. He felt restless, unmoored, aching for something he couldn’t even define. Then he heard it, ghosting above the traffic and the sirens and the heat.

More.

He stood up, looking down, and saw that golden hair, saw her, standing below, looking up at him.

Everything shifted around him, that tingle pricking at him, and he shouted, desperate. “Wait!”

He looked at her in agony for a moment, knowing that as soon as he straightened up, ran down there, the reason for doing so would likely leave him the moment she left his sight. “Stay there! Please!”

He sucked in a breath and ran through his apartment, out the door and down the three flights, tearing the door open, holding her firmly in his mind – don’t forget, don’t forget – and when he burst out onto the sidewalk and found it empty, he could have wept.

Except – there –  she was walking around the corner and he followed, into the Park, under the trees, the muggy heat cooling there, the whizzing sounds of the cars fading into a low murmur, his heart pounding loud as she stopped under the spreading oak and turned back to him.

“So. Will you come?”

Matt stopped short. “I’m here.”

“Yes. Here. Will you come?”

“Where?”

She smiled as slow as the sun going down. “It cannot be undone.”

Matt felt the truth of it. A door was opening. Once he crossed, he couldn’t come back. “But where—“

“Not where. You will be here. The same, you’ll see. But not. A world within the world. Where the edges are different. Where your word is true.  Deeper danger and stronger joys. The stakes are higher.” Her head tilted. “Your choice. Come, or no.”

She stood serene, her hand out.

The song was filling him to the edges, softening his thundering heart, opening his shuttered eyes.

More.

Matt stepped forward, the door closing behind him, and took her hand.

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This Girl, by Fio Karr, on unsplash

 


Featured photo: The First Draft, by mpclemens, on flickr

Seeds: What’s Next?

It’s springtime here in Alberta, and that means planting. I have been doing my part to make the earth fruitful, in my small little plot of land that is my yard. Some bedding plants, some perennials, and a few tomatoes and an couple of pumpkins. That’s as far as I got.

In previous years I have had a more extensive garden, including carrots, and peas, and potatoes, and other various vegetables which generally meant a whole lot of work without not much yield, due to the craziness of trying to grow vegetables when there is a possibility of snow or freezing pretty much any month of the year here. Hence my lack of enthusiasm this year!

It’s always fun to plant the seeds, though, and watch the garden grow. This year I may not have planted any physical seeds, but there are a few seeds rattling around in my brain all the same; seeds of book plans, future blog posts, and  future writing endeavours.

I thought I would share these here, just to help keep myself accountable!

  1. THE BOOK/S (1? 2? 3?)

a) Revisions

I spent some time doing some planning the other day, and mapped out how many more chapters of revision I have to do and made myself a time-line, just so I have something to shoot at. Turns out if I can do about 6 chapters a week, I should be finished revision by the end of August, even with the holidays we have planned over the summer.

I am hoping to get the revised MS to beta readers in September. If any of you are interested in being a beta reader, I would be happy to take you up on it. And for those of you who have read the earlier draft and want to see the more polished version, I’d love to get your feedback as well. It will be the whole kit and caboodle, as they say, not just the first of the trilogy that you have read before, just to sweeten the deal.

b) Next steps?

After revisions are done, I will have to take the feedback from the beta readers and look at the whole MS and make some decisions. Will it be one book? Or maybe two? What is the best way forward? Does some of the things I took out need to come back?

I have to get a book launch plan in place, and a cover, and marketing plans, etc. I plan to do this over October and November. I will also do the final edits in October. I’m toying with sending it out again for a professional edit, but I’m not sure. We’ll see.

c) Launch?

Keeping in mind all of the above, and depending on how the revisions and feedback from readers goes, I’m looking at a launch sometime in the first half of the New Year. Which totally terrifies me. Watch this space!

 

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2. FUTURE BLOG POSTS

I am settling into a bit of a rhythm here on the blog, and so far it’s working pretty well for me this year. I don’t know if you have noticed, but generally the months are structured like this:

First week – something about the Dark Ages. Might be a focus on a person from that time, or  something about the culture, or whatever strikes my fancy. As my book is set in this era, I like to keep that focus to hopefully gain interest on my book, both before and after publication.

Second week – something random, maybe a book or movie review, or another Dark Ages post, or an interview with another writer, or whatever. Once in awhile I’ll throw in some writing-related topics, like my recent one on tropes.

Third week – this is where I hope to have my Fiction Feature, where I share original short stories, like last week’s story, and this one I put up a couple of months ago.

Fourth week – my review of the book I read for my Year of Fun Reading.

I”m not exactly tied to this structure with bonds of steel. My first and last posts of the month will generally be as I have outlined here, but I have a little more flexibility with the middle two. Probably I won’t get a story up every month, but I’m aiming to get one up every two months for sure.

At the beginning of the month I try to fill in the topics for each week, just to avoid the weekly panic of what to write about. A little planning goes a long way. (I should remember that, to curb my “pantsing” tendencies…)

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3. FUTURE WRITING ENDEAVOURS

a) Professional market?

The last couple of years I have had a goal to get published in a professional paying short story market. There are two reasons for this, first of all these markets generally pay better, but more importantly, I want to see if I can get accepted into the markets where the big boys play. I’ve had no success so far, but I have had at least one publication tell me to send them something else, so that’s inching forward, at any rate.

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Er, yes. It can take a looonnggg time to hear back…..

It’s hard, though. I’m naturally more of a novel writer than a short story writer. But it’s good practice for me to write shorter pieces, it helps me with my book writing.

So, this is still a goal but I find with being caught up in the book revisions I don’t have as much time to write short stories. That is one of the reasons I decided to put more stories on my blog, it forces me to write them! But then I also have to write some for publication, as generally editors don’t want anything previously published, and having a story on a blog (on any other online venue) is considered previously published. It all comes down to time, and priorities. I have to put the book first, so story-writing often gets pushed aside.

b) Professional development

I hope to schedule more time for growth as a writer. That means more writing, as explained above, but workshops, conferences, etc are good, too. Unfortunately I will miss the wonderful When Words Collide festival in Calgary, I will be out of province then. But there are many opportunities for writers these days, just looking online you can find myriad opportunities for writers who want to work on their craft. And I’ve got lots of “how to” books I can work through as well. So I don’t have any excuse.

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In October I’m treating myself to a marvellous experience called Hutchmoot, in Nashville. This is the brainchild of the folks over at The Rabbit Room, which is pretty much my favourite place on the web. It’s not a writing workshop per se, but it will be a great place for my artistic soul to get refreshed and filled. And I’m hoping to meet some fellow writers and get some encouragement (and give some, too!).

I hope your spring and summer season is full of fruitful seeds, as well. Thank you so much for stopping by here, and reading my words. It is appreciated more than you know.

And if you have any suggestions for what YOU would like to see me do here, please let me know in the comments.

 


Feature image from D Sharon Pruitt, on flickr

Fiction Feature: Life for Life

I aim to share more of my writing on the blog, hopefully once a month. We’ll see. Seeing as my novel-in-progress features elves, of a sort, I find that I have quite a few stories floating around in my mind about elves and the mythology surrounding them. The elves in this story are a little more traditional than the ones in my book. It was a fun one to write. I hope you enjoy it, at any rate. Any comments welcome. 


Life for Life

We broke from the trees, the mountain rising before us like a juggernaut, lazy mist swirling around its flanks. I grew cold at the sight. At the base of those rocky slopes I had lost all I held dear, and now I returned, to get it back.

Gruff snarled beside me, and I motioned him to quiet.

His large head swung towards me, lambent yellow eyes glowing, ears twitching.

I let out a breath, which ghosted silver around us. “Not far now.”

He smiled, showing snaggled teeth, the hatred of his kind for the elves sharp in his eyes. “Elf-blood. Soon, Lady, soon.”

I set my jaw. “Perhaps,” I cautioned. “But be wary. Their Charms are powerful, I know it full well. If they use magic we must fight. I will get my child back, or die trying.” My hand fell to the knife at my side and I squinted at the sky. “We must away. I would not fight the Elves at night, with the moon to aid them.”

Gruff nodded, and I gestured him forward, my purpose hardening. I would not fight the Elves at all. That way led to doom. But I kept that from the ogre for reasons of my own. I followed in his wake, the icy ball of fear in my gut growing with every step, no matter my boastful words.

My husband is dead, my family scattered since the Wars. My child is all that was left to me, and I would retrieve him, no matter the dire warnings, the mutterings about the Elves and their trickery. I had thought long, though, and come up with some trickery of my own. I could only pray it would be enough.

Two hours later we came to the riling brook that was the border to Dayladel. We had been watched for some time. I felt their eyes upon me, their mild regard. They had no fear of a human and an ogre, why should they? Their magic shielded them. The same magic that separated me from my babe last year, their songs and enchantments drawing me here, deep into the woods, my son strapped to my back as I stepped across the brook. When I awoke the next day he was gone. They left me with a changeling, a mewling misshapen creature that I brought back, weeks later. When they ignored my plea I left it there to die.

I shook the memory from me. The noonday sun sparkled on the water as I lifted my chin, my hands fisted at my side. “Raleadon!”

My voice was strong enough to startle a bird into flight nearby. The mist swirled among the trees, and beyond the brook I could see but little.

The ogre growled deep in his chest, a low rumbling noise, as a figure appeared through the mists, walking slowly towards us, a high, thin song floating with him.

That song twined around us, the melody elusively complex, carrying with it hints and promises, glimpses of Dayladel, where the dancing Elves wore garments of moonshine and lace, shimmering in a silvery glow….

Beside me, Gruff roared, his foot stamping the ground and my eyes flew open. I staggered as I checked myself–one foot was in the brook. Heart pounding, I leapt back. My cheeks flushed under the cool regard of Raleadon’s violet eyes. So easy it was to be Charmed.

I must act now, or never.

“Gruff!” The word tore out of me and Gruff roared again, lifting his arms and shaking his spear, taking one step towards the Elf.

Suddenly there was a twisting in the air around us. The mist swirled around the ogre, obscuring him from my eyes. Then I blinked, for where Gruff once stood a twisted pine lifted it’s branches to the sky, throwing a spiky shadow.

I swallowed back my surging elation and faced Raleadon. “I’ll have him back. My son is no Elf. My blood has rights on his.”

One thin eyebrow lifted as Raleadon’s eyes flicked over me. “We traded you life for life, and you rejected it. The matter is done. And as you see, we cannot be forced.” He turned, to leave me.

“Nay, it is not. You tried to trick me, thinking my love would blind me to the flaws of the creature you left me with. ‘Twas no true bargain. I want my son back.”

He turned back, his face serene. “But you have nothing to give in exchange.”

I gestured at the pine. “Life for life.” I held my breath, hoping against hope it would be enough. For Gruff I felt but a twinge of regret. He held no claim on me, none at all.

Raleadon’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the tree, and then a wide smile split his face, the cold beauty of it dazzling to my human eyes. “Ah, you prove more interesting than most.” He gestured, and two other figures materialized out of the mist behind him; one wreathed in song, the other, a child.

It took everything I had not to cross the brook. I would not be trapped there again.

The Elves’ magic had done its work; it was no toddler but a young lad that surveyed me with wide eyes. His father’s eyes. With a slight push Raleadon sent him towards me, and he splashed across the water to my open arms.

The Elves turned and faded back into the mist with nary a glance back.

I had won.

A tremor ran through me, and for a moment I placed my hand on the pine’s knobbly trunk. Life for life. It was the deepest magic, the only thing that could sway the Elves. “I won’t forget,” I whispered.

The boy looked up at me with his father’s eyes and my heart swelled. I took his hand, and together we turned our back on the mountain, towards home.

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Image from suwalls

Feature image: The First Draft, by mpclemens, on flickr

Bald’s Leechbook: The Doctor is In

I find as I do research on the so-called Dark Ages that time and time again, my preconceived notions about what life must have been like have been proven wrong. It’s hard to fight against the popular culture’s perception of the Early Middle Ages, that perception that people’s lives were “nasty, brutish, and short.” The Roman Empire had collapsed, the barbarian hordes had destroyed civilization as we know it, and the world was plunged into a cultural, scientific, and artistic darkness that would last until the Renaissance.

Some of that is true, up to a point. But the more I read about this time period, the more I find ways in which all of those assumptions are challenged.

Take medicine, for example. How did people treat the various diseases or injuries they suffered? I don’t know about you, but what springs to my mind is a muttering priest praying over a patient or a cackling crone stirring up a brew of some entirely unhelpful mix of ingredients, and administering it, along with a spell or two, to the sick.  Mainly, I imagine that people died of things that are easily cured today, and that people then had no idea of how the human body worked or how to fix anything that might go wrong with it.

Well, the truth is skirting around the edges of those ideas, to be sure, but perhaps, like me, you will be surprised to discover exactly how medicine was practiced in those days.

First of all, I have explained before about how the lack of written material from this era makes it hard for us to understand the customs and people of the day. But surprisingly, there are around five hundred leaves of connected medical texts in Old English that survive from this time period. So when you think about how little written material we have, to have this many medical texts surviving gives you a clue that there must have been a lot of medical texts available at the time.

The most important of these texts, called Bald’s Leechbook, presumably owned or named after a physician named Bald, comes to us from the ninth century, but is a copy of a work from about fifty years before. A leech was another name for a physician, because, yes, they did use leeches to treat some ailments (they are surprisingly effective in reducing swelling and bruising after an injury, because they are great at sucking blood out). It is a compilation of the best of medical knowledge stretching back to the Roman and Greek empires, and ultimately back to the celebrated Roman physician, Galen.

This gives us an important clue that the medical knowledge of the Greeks and Romans was not lost in Dark Ages Britain. From references in Bede’s histories, we see that both laymen and clerics were named physicians. And from looking at the remedies prescribed in the Leechbook and from other sources, we can see that a wide variety of cures and treatments for various maladies and injuries were available to the Anglo-Saxon physicians of the time. Most of these were plant-based herbal remedies, made up of both locally available plants and even some exotic ingredients such as cinnamon, pepper, or ginger, that would have been obtained from the far East through Arabic traders into the Continent, finally reaching Britain.

Some of these ingredients were helpful, some neutral, and some harmful. Others, containing ingredients such as garlic, onion, oxgall and copper salts, are very useful indeed against bacterial infection.

Just how useful was proven in 2015. Microbiology experts at the University of Nottingham recreated a recipe that was meant to be an eye salve, for eye infections. At the time, of course, physicians had no idea of bacteria or viruses, but found this recipe effective against eyes that were inflamed and sore. The university scientists recreated the recipe, consisting of crushed garlic and onion, 25 ml of English wine (which they obtained from a historic vineyard near Glastonbury) and bovine salts dissolved in distilled water. Bovine salts consist of dried bile from a cow’s intestine, in case you were wondering (I had to look it up, too!).

They thought it might have some positive effect, based on the ingredients, and made a large batch, which they tested on one of today’s antibiotic-resistant superbugs named MRSA. To their great astonishment, the mixture wiped out almost 90% of the MRSA bacteria. They cannot completely explain this, for the ingredients, separately, will not have the same effect. So it is the combination of the ingredients mixed together that prove effective, and they cannot, as of yet, explain why or how. Research is continuing.

There is evidence from studying skeletons found from this era, and from treatments prescribed in the Leechbook,  that surgery was also attempted at this time, and in some cases, successfully. Amputations for gangrenous limbs, using silk thread to suture abdominal wounds, and even plastic surgery in terms of suturing cleft palates was practiced.

Even brain surgery. Yes. Some skulls from this period (and even from pre-historic times, believe it or not) show evidence of trepanation. This is the drilling of a hole through the skull to expose the dura mater that covers the brain. This could be done after a head injury, to clean out the bits of bone and blood that collect under the skull and relieve pressure and pain that results. If you have ever drilled a hole in a fingernail to relieve that throbbing pain that results from an injury to a finger where blood is collecting under the nail, you get the idea.*

Even more astonishing than the fact they attempted this is the fact that the patient often survived, as shown by the trepanned holes in the skulls being edged with new bony growth, meaning the person lived for some time after.

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A trepanned skull of a 50 year old woman from 3500 BC (!), France.  Yup, she survived this (see the rounded edges of the bone?). That’s one huge hole….This procedure wasn’t always just for head injuries. Condidtions such as epilepsy or other psycological ailments could have trepanning as a “cure” – to let the “evil spirits” out. Image from wikicommons

There is, however, some “darkness” in Dark Ages medicine. There were certainly things that physicians could treat – mending broken bones, infections resulting from wounds, etc. However, there were maladies that they had no understanding of the causes and therefore had to resort to guessing how to fix it, or to charms. Things such as eczema or allergic reactions, or even the plague, would have been beyond their understanding as they didn’t know about the causes of these and so could not treat them.

Enter the Lacnunga (“Remedies”), a tenth century collection of medical and related materials. It is this collection that has given Dark Ages medicine it’s bad name, so to speak, for here we find the various remedies for ailments that involve charms, incantations, and other odd practices. Often they are a combination of ancient pagan practices with Christian prayers or symbolism. So we have, for example, this charm:

If cysts pain a man at the heart, let a virgin go to a spring which runs straight east, and draw forth one cup full, with [in the direction of?] the current, and sing thereon the Creed and Pater noster, and then pour it into another vessel; and let him/her draw again a second and sing again the Creed and the Pater noster; and do so that you have three [cupfuls]; do this nine days; soon he will be well.

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The first page of the Lacnunga. Image from wyrtig.com

 

Here we see sacred waters (the spring), running east (the direction of the coming Day of the Lord, when Christ will rise in the east), the virgin (note male or female), the number three, the number nine, the Creed (the Apostle’s Creed, the fundamental beliefs of every Christian), the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer). This is a marvellous mixture of both pagan and Christian elements, and it shows in a very elemental way how the culture of the time was being tugged between these two belief systems, just as do Beowulf and the insular art of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

But as a medical treatment for “cysts of the heart” (whatever that may be), it is, of course, useless. Except in the giving of hope, which as we all know, is a powerful kind of medicine all in itself, so it’s not to say that these charms were always ineffective.

So were Dark Ages physicians simply ignorant hacks that killed more patients than they cured, using guesses and folklore to treat their patients?

I believe the evidence says no. As the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England states, 

If we can trust the evidence of the surviving medical literature it appears that Anglo-Saxon medicine was no worse than any other of its day, and that at its best it was probably better than most.

And maybe even better than our own, in treating MRSA, at any rate!


*I never, ever do this. My hubby has done this to himself. I can’t watch. I can’t even imagine doing this to treat a head injury. “Come here, Ecbert. Let me drill into your head with this big drill. It will make you feel better. Honest. “ Yikes. They were made of sterner stuff than I, to be sure.

 

Featured image: a facisimle page from Bald’s Leechbook, from Wikipedia

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.