One of the things you swiftly learn, as a historical fiction author, is that you must become well read in a myriad of subjects. Many of these topics, to external eyes, may seem entirely disconnected with writing a novel. Little do they know, this knowledge is invaluable. Creating a historic and accurate landscape within which your characters can travel and interact is hard work.
I thought I’d share some research I’ve been doing for some travelling characters that may not always be able to pop into the local town for supplies. Living in the 5th Century AD as they do, and also wary of bumping into enemies, they have only what they brought with them for the journey, and what they find along the way.
From Saxon settlement, along ancient roadways, across rivers towards the coast, this is what they might discover.
Woodland, Hedgerow, Roadside, Heath & Moorland
In scrubby woodland you’ll find young Elder buds for salads, and hazelnuts rich in protein, fats and minerals. The best dandelions are found on hedge banks and roadsides, and their young leaves are good in salads. Eat them in moderation, however. As suggested by their French name ‘pis-le-lit’ (or more politely, wet-the-bed) they are a diuretic and can have you running for the nearest facilities!
Blackberries ripen in August and are at their sweetest then. Also known as the ‘blessed bramble’ it was so called for the joy its fruit brought to areas where fruit was rare. Its leaves soothe burns and bruises, and a rich dye can be made from the berries, as can also be made from sloes. Sloe berries also make delicious wine, though I doubt my travelling companions have time for that.
Columbines love limestone woods and flower May-July. While most of the plant is poisonous, the 17th Century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper observed that ‘the seed taken in wine causeth a speedy delivery of women in childbirth’. Handy if any of your travelling party are in the later stages of child labour!
Pollen from the Common Mallow has been found in Roman remains in Britain, suggesting it was imported for medicinal purposes. Pliny the Elder declared a daily ‘spoonful of the mallows’ to be preventative of illnesses. A decoction of boiled leaves is said to calm fevers and a lotion of the same alleviates swellings. Mucilage of the roots of the variety known as ‘Marsh Mallow’ once provided a chewy filling to chocolate coated biscuits. Today it is somewhat rare and used only in toiletries and cosmetics.
Another ancient acquaintance is the Crocus, harvested since medieval times for the spice ‘saffron’. Although this doesn’t necessarily constitute a ready food source, I felt it worth a mention as an ingredient. Also within this realm is Lady’s Bedstraw or ‘Galium verum’, once used as a rennet in cheese-making. Thyme can flavour soups, stews, sauces and stuffing and is thought to prevent bad dreams. Ideal for travelling nobility with heavy weights on their minds.
The obvious one here is seaweed, of which two types can be cooked as a spring vegetable - laver and caragon. You can also cook ‘Fat Hen’ and nettle leaves as you would spinach (but wear gloves when picking the latter!). Nettle leaves also make a refreshing drink. Molluscs such as cockles, mussels, and if in Cornwall, pilchards, all make tasty additions to a meal. At the end of summer, enjoy sweet chestnuts, eaten raw or even better roasted. Then in autumn, berries, nuts and fungi can be found, mostly in woodland, but field mushrooms are common in pastures and meadows (particularly where horses graze). Pick early in the morning and fry or add to soups.
By streams, fields and riverbanks you can find water-loving mint, watercress and wild garlic – all great for making soups. Wild garlic, also known as Ramsons, gives its name to several settlements in Britain known for the pervasive smell of this pretty flower, including Ramshope, Ramsbottom, Ramsey and Ramsholt. The name derives not from male sheep, but the Old English word ‘hrmsa’ meaning ‘wild garlic’!
Bogbean can be found in wet soil, mud and water – its bitter trifoliate leaves were used as infusions to alleviate scurvy and rheumatism. Laplanders used the powdered roots to bulk up the meal in their bread, though it leaves a bitter taste. Another lover of moist ground is Common Comfrey. All parts of the plant have a reputation for healing cuts and fractures and reducing swelling. Often going by the name ‘knitbone’, an infusion of the leaves in warm water gives relief to sprained wrists and ankles. My heroine in WULFSUNA uses a comfrey poultice beside a stream to alleviate swollen ankles.
Mentioned by the Greeks as early as the 1st Century AD, ‘seseli’ or as we know it Sweet Cicely, can be added to salads. Its fresh, sweet leaves counteract any bitterness or remove tartness when boiling fruit. With an aniseed flavour, it was used as an aphrodisiac in the 16th Century to ‘increaseth...lust and strength’ (John Gerard’s ‘Herball’).
Some wild animals are predators to be cautious of, others may be sacred and some will be food sources. Wolves, foxes and badgers are main predators. Boar, while a ferocious beast particularly when breeding, makes a large meal, as do deer. Hares were considered sacred by some pagans and eating them was forbidden if not all of the time, then at least during certain symbolic festivals especially around springtime. Others believed them to be witches in animal form and were so avoided. Their later cousins, rabbits, are low in fat and good in a stew, though not widely available. Introduced by the Romans, they died out post-Empire and were not reintroduced until later centuries. Snakes and certain birds were also pagan symbols and so may have had a bearing on whether they were eaten. Poisonous snakes would be avoided for obvious reasons.
With an abundant array of salad leaves and stewing vegetables, my characters’ wild food table will be replete with tasty dishes to serve alongside freshly caught fish, berries and nuts, and maybe even a boar if they’re lucky. However, I must stress it is not suggested nor advised that you go munching on anything you find growing along the roadside. Some plants are highly poisonous. As Ben Law says, if you can’t identify them, ‘don’t eat them!’.
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Farmhouse Cookery, Readers’ Digest
Wild flowers, Graham Murphy
The Woodland Way, Ben Law
Blood, betrayal and brotherhood.
An ancient saga is weaving their destiny.
A treacherous rival threatens their fate.
A Seer's magic may be all that can save them.
Elaine Moxon writes historical fiction as ‘E S Moxon’. Her debut Wulfsuna was published January 21st, 2015 and is the first in her Wolf Spear Saga series of Saxon adventures, where a Seer and one named ‘Wolf Spear’ are destined to meet.
She is currently writing her second novel, set once again in the Dark Ages of 5th Century Britain. You can find out more about Book 2 from Elaine’s website where she has a video diary charting her writing progress. She also runs a blog. Elaine lives in the Midlands with her family and their chocolate Labrador.