Monday, July 13, 2015

The Senses in Anglo-Saxon England

by Annie Whitehead

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All images Public domain unless otherwise stated:
Fuller brooch used under Commons Licence author Johnbod
Tamworth pig used under Commons Licence author Anlace at Wikipedia
~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and member of the Royal Historical Society. Her novel, To Be a Queen, tells the story of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great, who led her adopted kingdom of Mercia against the Viking invaders. Her second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker tells the story of 10th Century King Edgar's right-hand-man, who finds himself fighting a deadly battle to support the monarchy and keep his loved ones safe, including the fragile queen, mother of Aethelred the Unready.



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11 comments:

  1. Great post, Annie. Some interesting thoughts and nuggets there for me to digest. Thanks!

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  2. Good post Annie. Different angle on what life would have been like in Saxon times.

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    1. Thanks Richard - it is always difficult trying to 'get back' over so many years to get an idea of what the world seemed like to those who lived then

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  3. Great piece Annie. I've been reading up on Ergot poisoning for a scene in my next novel too (it's quite nasty stuff!). I'm a very tactile person and when I wrote my first book I knew I wanted my characters' senses to play a large part. As a reader I find it immersing if my senses are stimulated, particularly in a period novel. Exploring smoking and tanning and considering how people lived is so important. I really enjoyed this! Thanks again.

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  4. Great piece Annie. I've been reading up on Ergot poisoning for a scene in my next novel too (it's quite nasty stuff!). I'm a very tactile person and when I wrote my first book I knew I wanted my characters' senses to play a large part. As a reader I find it immersing if my senses are stimulated, particularly in a period novel. Exploring smoking and tanning and considering how people lived is so important. I really enjoyed this! Thanks again.

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    1. Thanks Elaine - I agree; the characters' senses play a huge part in lifting them 'off the page' and making them real. And readers need to be drawn into a world that they feel they can 'experience'. It's all about drawing the 3D image, I suppose :)

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  5. Brilliant stuff and bookmarked to refer back to, thank you.

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