Sunday, January 31, 2016


by Lauren Gilbert

Cook with Food

While you may suspect that this article is about the capture of a criminal, today we are actually looking at food.   English cuisine in the Georgian and Regency era is a special interest for me. I enjoy learning about old cooking techniques and dishes.  As a reader and writer of historical fiction, I think the inclusion of the foods of a given period makes the work more interesting and brings the time alive.  After all, we all have to eat, and we can all relate to a discussion of food.

Collaring involves seasoning, rolling and binding your food material.  It can be rolled and tied in a cloth or bound with string. The roll itself is referred to as a collar.   It can be pickled or boiled or baked.  It can be chopped or shredded, or a whole piece.

I have found several recipes for collared beef, pork and mutton, and a few for collared eel.  The results range from a pickled dish to one that sounds similar to a rolled stuffed roast.  Many of these dishes are heavily salted, and the recipes indicate that they can be stored for a time.   Recipes for collared meats go back to Elizabethan times and were popular through the Georgian and Regency eras.

The Elizabethan recipe for collared beef that I read had no list of ingredients.  Quantities are not shown, so the amount of seasoning used would have been a matter of personal taste.  I suspect the particular spices and herbs used would have varied with what the cook could afford and the season of the year.  The recipe and technique, which includes soaking in salted water, can be read in its entirety at the link provided below for the Elizabethan Era site.  The finished product would be cooled, and served in slices.  As you can see, the final dish sounds very much like a rolled roast we might serve today.

In THE ART OF COOKERY MADE PLAIN AND EASY, Mrs. Glasse’s recipe for collared beef is included in the section TO CURE HAMS, &c.  Mrs. Glasse used a dry brining of salt, salt petre, and sugar combined, with which she rubbed the beef flank.  The meat was turned and rubbed with the brine for 8 days, then rinsed and dried.  It was then seasoned with herbs and spices, rolled very tight, wrapped in a cloth and tied.  The collared beef was then boiled in water  (five hours if a small one, 6 if a large one), then removed and cooled in a press (or between two boards with a weight).  When cooled , the collar was removed from the cloth and sliced for serving.

Eliza Smith, in THE COMPLEAT HOUSEWIFE, included recipes for collared salmon and collared eel.  Her salmon was brushed with egg yolk, and then spread with a wide range of ingredients including oysters, lobster, sweet herbs, spices (including cloves, nutmeg and pepper) and breadcrumbs.  It was then rolled and bound.  After a mixture of water, salt and vinegar was brought to a boil, she put in the salmon collar with more herbs and spices.  It was boiled for about 2 hours, and then removed to a pan.  When the cooking liquid was cold, the salmon was replaced in the liquid and let to stand until used.  If not to be eaten at the time, the salmon collar and liquid could have been placed in a pot, which was then filled with purified butter for storage.

On the blog The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies, a recipe for collared brawn is discussed.  Raw meat from the head of a pig was removed, and the pieces placed in salt for 3 days, spiced (including cloves and mace), and wrapped in a cloth.  Then it was boiled in a mixture of vinegar, salt and water until tender.  After being removed from the liquid and cloth, the brawn was wrapped tightly in a fresh cloth and tied, then cooled.  The liquid (referred to as “pickle”) was then brought to a boil with fresh water, and then cooled, and the brawn was kept in the liquid.  (The recipe advises making fresh liquid or liquor every two weeks.)

Although I am not sure how long these dishes could actually be held, I can see how some of these and similar recipes maintained their popularity in English cuisine for several centuries.  The preparations and seasonings used in collaring meat and fish would have allowed for varied flavors and textures.  In the days before refrigeration, being able to prepare and store a dish must have been a blessing, especially if serving an unexpected visitor. Some of these recipes could be readily adapted for modern taste as well.

Sources include:
Glasse, Hannah.  THE ART OF COOKRY MADE PLAIN AND EASY.  First published 1747, new edition published 1805: Cotton and Stewart, Alexandria.  Facsimile of 1805 edition with historical notes by Karen Hess, published 1997: Applewood Books, Bedford, MA.
Smith, Eliza.  THE COMPLEAT HOUSEWIFE.  First published 1758.  Facsimile edition published 1994: Studio Editions, Ltd., London, England.

The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.  "To Collar Meat."  Posted October 2, 2013 by Westminster City Archives.  HERE.  Last viewed 1/30/2016.

Elizabethan Era.  Alchin, L.K., author.  “Collar’d Beef Old Elizabethan Recipe.”   HERE.

Image for THE ART OF COOKERY MADE PLAIN AND EASY from Wikimedia Commons  HERE

Image "Cook with Food" by Franz Snyders (1579-1657) from Wikimedia Commons HERE

Image for THE COMPLEAT HOUSEWIFE from Wikimedia Commons HERE

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Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD, A Novel and a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America.  She lives in Florida with her husband, and is working on another novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT.  For more information, visit her website.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Lusitania Cover-Up

By Greg Taylor

The Lusitania Cover-Up was published in July in i-Magazine in the UK.

Nearly 100 years after the 9/11 of its day, the truth comes out.

On May 1st last year, the government archives at Kew released declassified documents. What documents are kept secret? Those that are dangerous or embarrassing to the government. In the case of documents related to RMS Lusitania released on May 1st 2014, both are true.

The sinking of the Lusitania was the 9/11 of its day. On May 7th 1915, the 31,550-ton Cunard Liner was en route to Liverpool from New York with 1,959 souls aboard when a German U-Boat torpedoed her just 11 miles off the coast of Ireland.

Everyone is familiar with the tale of the Titanic but what about the Lusitania?

She was launched into the River Clyde to the strains of “Rule Britannia” on June 7 1906, the largest moveable object ever created by man. On the Lusitania rested the hopes of the Empire and Cunard Lines that Britain would reclaim from the German liners the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic.

By George Grantham Bain [Public Domain]
via Wikimedia Commons

She was financed with government loans on the condition she be available for troop transport in time of need. Despite this, the Lusitania was fitted out to a standard of luxury never seen before. She reclaimed for Britain the Blue Riband on her third Atlantic crossing with a speed of 23.99 knots.

Dining Saloon RMS Lusitania,
[Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons

In 1915, the Lusitania was the fastest, most luxurious ship making the transatlantic run. When she sailed from New York on May 1st 1915, the New York Times and other papers carried a warning from the German Embassy. Everyone ignored it - confident the fastest ship in the world could outrun any German submarine that might dare to threaten a passenger liner travelling from a neutral country.

Submarines of that period had a top speed underwater of only nine knots. They could reach speeds of fifteen knots on the surface but were vulnerable of being rammed. This led the Admiralty to issue such instructions to the merchant fleet in February 1915, a command that was intercepted and known to the German High Command.

The U20 spotted the Lusitania on the 7th of May, the last day of her crossing. The submarine nearly lost her due to the liner’s superior speed but a last minute change of direction gave the U20 an excellent shot. After being hit by a single torpedo, the Lusitania sank in eighteen minutes at a list so severe that only eight of the forty-two lifeboats were launched. Due to the thirty-degree list, the lifeboats on the port side smashed into the decks below, while those on the starboard side hung eight feet from the doomed ship.

Knowing the speed of the Lusitania might flip lifeboats put into the water, Captain Turner ordered the boats lowered to the Promenade Deck and kept empty until the ship slowed. He did not realise that he and his passengers would have only eighteen minutes before the stern slipped under the water.

By Winsor McCay (Living Lines Library)
[Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons

Kapitänleutnant Schwieger, who ordered the torpedo strike, was shocked when he saw through his periscope a second, much larger explosion. He refused to permit his crew to look at the drowning passengers of the Lusitania.

To this day, experts continue to debate the cause of the second explosion that sealed the Lusitania’s fate after the torpedo struck. Imperial Germany immediately claimed the ship was loaded with explosives destined for the front.

In June 1915, during the official inquiry into the sinking of the Lusitania, the Admiralty manipulated testimony so that Lord Mersey reached an erroneous conclusion that multiple torpedoes struck the ship. The Admiralty knew from an intercepted message that Kapitänleutnant Schwieger had fired only a single torpedo. It was important to many that the inquiry blame only Imperial Germany. Lord Mersey waived his fees for the case and formally resigned two days after the verdict, saying, "The Lusitania case was a damned, dirty business!" Documents related to the closed sessions of the inquiry have never been released and Lord Mersey’s personal copy is claimed to be lost.

The Admiralty had withdrawn the Lusitania’s escort ship, HMS Juno, once the submarine threat became known. Like the Lusitania, the Juno was built with longitudinal coal bunkers that protected vital machinery from shellfire but made the ship vulnerable to listing when hit by a torpedo. It was also known that First Sea Lord Winston Churchill had remarked that the loss of an ocean liner such as the Lusitania might help bring America into the war on the side of Britain.

Beginning in 1922, Germany repeatedly requested international dives on the Lusitania wreck to determine whether the second explosion was a result of contraband munitions on board. The alleged use by the British Navy of the site for testing depth charges is considered by some an effort to destroy evidence.

What was in the documents released at Kew last year?

Under the 30 Year Rule, the British National Archive released internal memoranda between the Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence that showed that in 1982 the Government was concerned that divers to the Lusitania wreck were at risk because the wreck contained explosives. One of the memos went so far as to say that this disclosure might “blow up on us all”. The British government was worried about ramifications for British-American relations because the discovery of explosives on the wreck would imply the Lusitania had been a legitimate target.

The novel, Lusitania R.E.X, weaves fiction around the known facts to create a plausible explanation of some of the mysteries surrounding the sinking. The story is centred on one of the wealthiest men in the world, Alfred Vanderbilt, who lost his life after giving his lifebelt to a woman passenger. This historical fiction is replete with spies, secret societies and superweapons, as well as millionaires, monarchs and martyrs. In the book, Alfred and his fellow members of Skull and Bones, a Yale secret society that in 1911 included the President of the United States, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Treasury, have taken a secret cargo aboard the ship. The story unfolds on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in settings that range from gilded palaces and the Lusitania to the blood-soaked trenches of Ypres.

Greg Taylor is the author of Lusitania R.E.X and the inaugural winner of the M.M. Bennett's Award for Historical Fiction. Lusitania R.E.X is also a finalist in the People’s Book Prize. For more information, visit his website at

Friday, January 29, 2016

Marriage in British India

by Merryn Allingham

When I set out to write the Daisy’s War trilogy, I knew a fair amount about the Raj and its customs, including marriage. I’d read books, visited India a few years ago, and my own parents had married there. But in order to chart my heroine’s destiny over ten years between 1938 and 1948, I found I needed to know a lot more.

Captain Colin Mackenzie, Madras
Army, in Afghan Dress, 1842
The caricature of the Englishman in India - disdainful and contemptuous of Indian culture - is familiar from countless films and TV dramas, but the stereotype belies a much richer history. Before the 19th century, intermixing and cross-cultural marriages were common, with East India officials and English military men happily marrying local women. Some of the British men even took on Mughal customs, wearing Indian dress, writing Urdu poetry, establishing harems and generally adopting the ways of the Mughal governing class they replaced.

William Dalrymple’s research for his book, White Mughals, provides evidence for this. Reading through the wills of employees of the East India Company, he found that in the 1780s more than one-third of the British men in India left all their possessions to one or more Indian wives, or to their Anglo-Indian children. The wills suggested, too, an affection and loyalty on both sides, with British men asking their close friends to be executors and to care for their Indian partners. It was the rise of the Evangelical movement in England in the 1830s and 40s that slowly killed off this intermingling of ideas, religions and ways of life. Later wills written by East India Company servants show that the practice of marrying or cohabiting with Indian women had all but disappeared by the middle of the 19th century.

Following his marriage to Khair-un-Nissa in 1800, James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British representative to the court of Hyderabad, converted to Islam and adopted a Mughal way of life.

In 1858, following the Indian Mutiny, the British government disbanded the East India Company and the Raj became a discernible entity. Clear rules came into being regarding marriage for British men serving in India, whether they were military personnel or worked for the Indian Civil Service. Marriage to an Indian became taboo and marriage to Anglo-Indians, heavily frowned upon. Early marriage was seen as an impediment to a young man’s career and marriage was forbidden in the ICS before the age of 30 and made very difficult in the Indian Army. A marriage allowance was not paid until an Indian Army officer was 26, and it was customary to seek the Colonel’s permission to marry. He could refuse, and mostly did, until the young officer had achieved the rank of Captain. The military’s informal rule was that subalterns cannot marry, captains may marry, majors should marry, colonels must marry.

Bingham Arbuthnot
Indian Army cavalry
Husbands in the military were much sought after, and the most popular were those serving in what were seen as ‘good’ regiments in both the British Army and the Indian Army – the cavalry, in particular, was seen as having high status. Often young men from wealthy families were attracted by the hunting and the polo which were very much part of cavalry life, as well as the colourful and romantic dress uniforms: long blue jackets, scarlet and gold cummerbands and knee-length polished leather boots.

As soon as an officer decided to marry, there would be questions about the background of his proposed spouse. In a small community of British officers, it was necessary for a bride to get along well with other wives and to fit in with regimental arrangements. For the girl herself, marrying into the army meant a major readjustment. She was entering a male oriented society, dominated by military discipline, and one in which wives tended to matter only in terms of the rank of their husbands. She was forced to become part of the regimental ‘family’ whether she liked it not, and this left little room for individuality. The army wife was an appendage. Nothing more was required of her than to support her husband socially. Ideally she should be decorative, though presentable would do. She should be a good listener and not show cleverness. This wasn’t too difficult since most of the wives had enjoyed an indifferent education and had not been trained to do any job of work.

A tennis party

For the memsahib, life could be boring, claustrophobic and confined, though attitudes gradually changed over the early years of the 20th century. The pioneeers of the 1920s, who undertook voluntary work in nursing and teaching, had become more commonplace by the end of the Thirties. But overall memsahibs lived a life of intense boredom. Once they had agreed the day’s meals with their cook, there was nothing for them to do. People might visit for a game of bridge or for coffee and gossip. Husbands came home to lunch, then a siesta. After that, there was tennis at the Club, where our memsahib might stay drinking until dinner and then go on to a dance or perhaps a party. She might very occasionally have a love affair but it had to be extremely discreet – living was too communal and she dared not be discovered.

Amateur dramatics in British India

In no way did she live in a cultured society.The drama group of the cantonment might occasionally put on a version of The Pirates of Penzance or Kiss Me Kate, but there was little in the way of artistic pusuits. This was particularly true of the military – high ranking ICS members of the Club could be highly cultured and intellectual.

There were always more men serving in India than there were women to marry them. The advent of the steamship had for a long time meant quicker voyages and allowed men more easily to return home on leave to find a suitable bride, but there still remained a considerable surplus of males in the British India community. In Britain itself, the situation was reversed during the interwar years, with a desperate shortage of eligible men after World War I. It led to shiploads of hopeful girls traversing the Indian Ocean in search of a husband.

The season was crammed full of entertainments, and dances, balls, tennis matches and gymkhanas were all ways to meet the man of your dreams. This yearly influx of husband hunters acquired its own ironic tag, The Fishing Fleet. The Fleet sailed out to India in the Autumn, and any girls who had failed to find a husband or disliked the country too much to stay returned to England in Spring. They then acquired a new tag, that of The Returned Empties.

Other women, besides those in the Fishing Fleet, made the trip to India with marriage on their mind. These were the fiancées of serving soldiers (my mother included!) and ICS men. A special government dispensation had done away with premarital residence requirements, and they were allowed to wed immediately after they docked. A few hours after my heroine steps from the ship that has brought her to India, she is married in St John’s Afghan Church in Colaba, a suburb of what was then Bombay. Hopefully most brides did not face the dangers that were to confront Daisy!


Daisy’s Long Road Home is the third and final part of the Daisy’s War trilogy.
Amazon UK

Merryn Allingham worked for many years as a university lecturer and between job, family and pets, there was little time to do more than dabble in writing. But when the pressures eased, she grabbed the chance to do something she’d always promised herself – to write a novel. Over the next few years, she published several Regency romances but in 2013 adopted a new genre. Daisy’s War, a suspense trilogy, is the result. The books are set in India and wartime London during the 1930s and 1940s and the first in the series, The Girl from Cobb Street, was published in January last year. Books two and three followed in May and August, 2015.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

With the whole world in his hand

by Anna Belfrage

Some kings peer out at us from the mist of history as rather forgettable characters. One such king, IMO, is Henry III. Yes, I realise he has the misfortune of being squished between the upheaval that characterised the reign of his father, King John, and the rather impressive persona of his son, Edward I, but all the same, Henry comes across as passive – and seriously inept, as demonstrated by the rebellion of men like Simon de Montfort.

To be fair to Henry, he did not have an easy start in life. Becoming king at the tender age of nine, with your kingdom invaded by French mercenaries, your barons at each other’s throat, and your father vilified by every man around, cannot have been easy. Things were probably not made better when his mother, the famously beautiful Isabella, Countess of Angouleme, decided she was not cut out to play the part of grieving widow. In 1217, a year after Henry had lost his father, Isabella chose to return to her native Angouleme where she subsequently married Hugh de Lusignan and went on to present Henry with nine half-siblings.

Henry must have been lonely. Yes, he had a brother he loved dearly, and yes, he definitely had older men who acted as regents in his name, but ultimately he was still a child, however much a king he was expected to act.  In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising if Henry grew up to be reserved, turning inwards rather than outwards. Neither is it a surprise that he found solace in his faith – Henry is described as being a most pious king. And here, dear readers, lies the seed to the magnificent legacy Henry III did leave us: Westminster Abbey.

I have previously written a post about Westminster Abbey, and so as not to bore you to tears regarding my fascination for this place, today I thought we’d talk a bit about what drove Henry to invest such immense amounts in rebuilding the old and somewhat dark original abbey church into what it is today. And the starting point, I believe, is Henry’s determination not to be outdone by Louis IX of France.

St Louis
The two young kings were of an age – Henry was born in 1207, Louis in 1214. They were also brothers-in-law, both of them married to daughters of the Count of Provence. And they were both pious – very pious. If Henry went to mass every day – so did Louis. Louis fed hundreds of orphans – so did Henry.  One gave alms – so did the other. If Henry went on pilgrimages, chances are Louis would also go. When Louis washed the feet of lepers to show his humility, very soon after, Henry was also washing leprous feet.

The two kings seemed to be involved in an unspoken competition, a determination to show the world just who was the most pious, devoted and Christian king around. So when Louis proudly paraded the True Cross through Paris, Henry did not rest until he’d acquired the Relic of the Holy Blood (and no, let’s not go there…) and could just as proudly carry the vial with its priceless content to Westminster Abbey.

Sainte-Chapelle Photo by Michael D Hill Jr
Then, of course, Louis went ahead and started building Sainte-Chapelle – he needed an adequately beautiful church to store all those precious relics of his. Sainte-Chapelle was (is) a work of art and light. The upper part of the chapel was given fifteen huge stained glass windows, allowing light to stream in and illuminate the magnificently painted walls, the resplendent fabrics, the life-size statues of the apostles, and, of course, the huge silver chest in which Louis stored his precious relics.

What did Henry have that could match this? Nothing. Yes, Westminster Abbey was steeped in history, but did it have a lofty nave, did it invite the heavens to come within? Nope. So Henry rolled up his sleeves – figuratively speaking – and decided to rebuild, determined to create something as magnificent and imposing as Louis had done.

Henry had a trump card: within the abbey was the shrine to St Edward the Confessor – Henry’s patron saint – and Sainte-Chapelle had no such shrine, no such saint (although, to be honest, I find it difficult to understand why Edward was ever canonised. Neither here nor there…)

The shrine was remodelled. It was decked out with paint and gold-leaf, it was so adorned it immediately drew the eyes of any visitor, rising huge beyond the altar. The nave was rebuilt, rising to new heights. Light streamed in – not, perhaps, as much as in Louis’ chapel, but substantially more than before. And then Henry turned to the decoration within.

We may be excused for believing medieval churches were austere, mostly whitewash and wood – modern man has a tendency to equate starkness with piety. In truth, entering a medieval church was an assault on the senses, and especially that of sight. The walls were painted with scenes from the bible, statues glowed in blues and reds and golds, pillars rose towards the ceiling decorated with stonework and colour.  Candles cast further light on gold decorations, glimmered off priceless church silver. Sunlight streamed through stained glass windows, dappling the floor with coloured reflections. A bit, I imagine, like entering a full-size kaleidoscope, with so much to see, so much to gawk at.

This was the reaction Henry strived for. He wanted people to enter and stop, amazed at what they saw within. So not only did he lift the nave, order the walls to be painted and decorated, St Edward’s shrine to be adequately highlighted and gilded, he also added a magnificent floor just before the shrine, and to top it all off, the high altar was adorned with a magnificent retable.

St Peter with the key to Heaven
Amazingly, the Westminster Retable is still with us. Close to eight centuries old, badly damaged and scuffed, it is still there, still retains sufficient traces of the images that must at one time have had people going ‘ooooo’ and ‘aaaa’. To be frank, it is difficult not to do the ‘ooo’ and ‘aaa’ thing now as well – assuming you’ve taken the time to find the retable, which relatively few visitors to the abbey do, seeing as they never feel sufficiently motivated to visit the museum.

Divided into five panels, the retable was made of oak, decorated with enamels and jewels, meticulously painted using linseed oils. The frames of each panel was gilded, to the furthest left was St Peter, holding the keys to heaven, to the right St Paul, brandishing his sword. And in the central panel, decorated so as to resemble a gothic church, complete with stained glass windows, was, of course, Christ the Saviour, flanked by St John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.

The whole world in his hands...
I must admit to being somewhat in love with the retable. Specifically, I am intrigued by one image, that of Christ holding the whole world in his hand. Because you see, dear readers, the world Christ is holding is round. It’s a sphere. On a work of art from the 13th century. I shall leave you to mull that one over…

It is somewhat of a miracle that the retable is still around. When the Reformation happened, churches were often stripped of what was considered as excessively popish decorations, wall paintings were hidden under whitewash, statues of saints and the Virgin destroyed. And then, during the English Civil War, the Puritans had a tendency to go wild and crazy when it came to what they perceived as idolatry. The retable was not destroyed. It was just bundled off into storage somewhere, and in the 18th century someone came up with the bright idea to use the ancient thing – newly painted – as a cask for William Pitt the elder’s wax effigy.

These days, the retable is restored to a fragment of its original magnificence, but it is sufficient to conclude that the English (and French) craftsmen involved in its creation were true artists – and that the king who ordered it did not consider money a limiting factor.

Photo: Bede 735
It is, I suppose, an open question which king succeeded in best demonstrating his piety to the world. In their constant competition, they left the world two marvels, the pure gothic beauty of Sainte-Chapelle and the somewhat more grounded Westminster Abbey, its ancient roots still visible. And as to which one of them was the most devout, that too must remain an open question, although Louis would probably sniff and tell me not to be an idiot: after all, there is no St Henry while there most definitely is a St Louis – and by all accounts deservedly so.

In 1272, Henry III died. He left behind a devoted and extremely capable son and a work of art. Not a bad legacy, for a man who began his days as a frightened child-king and grew up to be a rather deficient ruler. Not bad at all.


Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first instalment, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published on November 1, 2015.

Anna Belfrage is also the author of the acclaimed  The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, eight books tell the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him.

For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website. If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Saint Columbanus Forsakes All Women – Even His Mom

By Kim Rendfeld

Saint Columbanus (543-615) had tremendous following during his missionary work on the Continent, but a story from his youth indicates he, like several saints, might not have been an easy guy to be around.

Details of his childhood in West Leinster, Ireland, are hazy. If we are to believe his hagiographer, Columbanus’s mother while pregnant with him had a dream of the sun rising from her bosom and shedding a resplendent light. She took that to mean the baby she was carrying was going to be a genius who would aid in her and her neighbors’ salvation. Little did she know the price she would pay.

Photo by Andreas Praefcke
(released to public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons)
One clue to Columbanus’s youth is that he was educated and lived at home, which implies that he might have come from a noble family who hired a tutor. Peasants commonly needed their children to help with the farm or the household rather than allow their children to devote time to lessons. We don’t know what Columbanus’s parents intended for him. Perhaps, they saw him as a member of the clergy, a common reason to teach a child grammar and science.

As a young man, he was good-looking and, his hagiographer says, “aroused against him the lust of lascivious maidens.” (Yep, medieval people knew the women enjoyed intimacy. In fact, conjugal relations were a wife’s right, too.)

He enjoyed the attention and feared it would destroy what he had worked for thus far. Eventually, he found a holy woman who has removed herself from the world for 12 years. She said she would have crossed the sea to live among strangers if not for the weakness of her sex. (For some reason that wasn’t a problem for Saint Ursula and her fellow martyrs maybe a century or two earlier, and almost 200 years later, nuns from Wimborne heeded Saint Boniface’s call to become missionaries on the Continent.)

The holy woman reminded him of how other men – Adam, Samson, David, and Solomon – had fallen because they succumbed to feminine charms and warned that he would do no better. She exhorted him to, “Flee from corruption, into which, as you know, many have fallen. Forsake the path which leads to the gates of hell."

For a frightened Columbanus, the flight was literal – he was going to leave home. He justified his departure with a verse from the Bible, Matthew 10:37, one that I struggle with: “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (King James version).

That was no consolation to his mother. In fact, the weeping woman laid herself across the threshold to block his way. Columbanus simply leapt over her. His hagiographer says that “he asked his mother not to give way to her grief; she would never see him again in this life, but wherever the way of salvation led him, there he would go.”

Salvation led him to a holy man then a monastery in Bangor, about 130 miles away – quite a distance when an army could go about 15 miles a day – and then across the Channel to Gaul.

To a medieval audience, this story, whether truth or legend, illustrates his piety – how his love for God was stronger than his love for his family. But I think even medieval mothers would be furious.


"St. Columbanus" by Columba Edmonds, The Catholic Encyclopedia

Medieval Sourcebook: “The Life of St. Columban by the Monk Jonas

Kim Rendfeld is the author of two books set in Carolingian Francia, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, and is working on Queen of the Darkest Hour. For more about Kim and her fiction, visit or her blog, Outtakes. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Dark Ages

By Mark Noce

Not just a controversial nickname for the medieval period, I’m talking about true dark ages in history. Entire epochs where next to nothing has survived in writing or archaeology. Eras after the fall of Rome or Troy. Yet something must have been happening, right? People and life go on, don’t they?

I’m fascinated by these dark ages of history, and none more so than the early medieval periods in the British Isles, particularly the centuries from 400-700AD. An age of legends, like those of King Arthur and the Mabinogion. But what was actually happening then?

Here’s what we do know for certain. At least hundreds of thousands of people were living in the British Isles at the time, and what little archaeology remains from the time period suggest a backwardness in the movement of technology (i.e. no new stone fortifications were built, only older Roman ones were repaired or modified). Many habitations show signs of plunder and burning by fire. In addition, hoards of valuables were buried and later abandoned or forgotten (probably because something happened to their owners). Not an indication of a very peaceful time.

On top of that, writing sources are even more scarce. The most extensive primary source to survive from the 500s alone comes from the monk, St. Gildas – and his longest surviving manuscript is less than 50 pages! Even books and those writing them were not spared from the onslaught of barbarians, famines, and plagues.

Yet the local people clearly survived. Genetic evidence shows that despite genes mixing from various invaders, the overall population of Britain and Ireland is still largely descended from the initial Stone Age inhabitants who first populated those islands.

So what’s it all mean?

To me, it shows a resilience of the human spirit and the indomitable character of those villages and kingdoms scattered across England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland in the early medieval period. Despite the worst of conditions they still managed to survive, pass on their heritage to their children, and give birth to some of the most inspiring Arthurian legends we have today.

No small feat, and one that I think is worthy of their legacy and their descendants who live on in the rest of us to this day.     

Mark Noce writes historical fiction with a passion. His medieval Welsh novel, Between Two Fires, comes out with Macmillan and St. Martin’s Press on August 23, 2016.

Learn more at or preorder his novel here.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Berry Sisters: Mary and Agnes Berry

My introduction to the Berry sisters came when they were mentioned in a novel.  In looking them up, I discovered that Mary, the older of the two, was a well-known author, and that the two sisters were personalities in society of their day, which spanned the Regency era.

Mary and Agnes Berry

Their father, Robert Berry, was the nephew of a successful and wealthy merchant, named Ferguson.  Mr. Ferguson achieved great success in London and Robert and his younger brother William were taken into his business.  Unfortunately, Robert Berry appears to have been something of a dreamer with a keener interest in literature than commerce, while William seemed to have a head for business.    Robert married a distant cousin, Elizabeth Seaton,  for love in 1762, despite the fact that she had no portion.  Robert’s income at that time was 300 pounds per year.  Mary, the couple’s first child, was born March 16, 1763 in Kirkbridge, Yorkshire.  Agnes was born May 29, 1764.  Sadly, Elizabeth Berry died in childbed in 1767 at the age of 23, and the baby died as well.   Their Grandmother Seaton cared for the two girls in Yorkshire, until they were moved to Chiswick in 1770.  Their governess’s marriage in 1775 ended their formal education.  There is an indication that, when Mary was 16, she was in love with a Mr. Bowman (or Bowden) but the relationship was disapproved and came to nothing.

In 1781, Robert Berry’s uncle died, leaving the bulk of his fortune and estate to William Berry, who took the last name of Ferguson, and a legacy of 10,000 pounds to Robert.  William, however, established an annuity for Robert of 1000 pounds per year.  Even though some sources suggest that Robert Berry’s reduced status of 300 pounds per year was a permanent state, at the time, it was still an income that allowed a comfortable life and, once Mr. Ferguson died, the family’s status definitely changed to a much higher standard of living. At this time, Mary and Agnes would have been young ladies of approximately 19 and 18 years of age.  In 1783, Mr. Berry took his daughters on a tour of Holland, Switzerland and Italy.  During this tour, the older daughter Mary took on the responsibility of acting as her sister’s and her father’s guardian.  Also in 1783, Mary began writing her journal in Florence, Italy, which became a lifelong activity.   The family returned to England via France in June of 1785.  While in Italy, Mary met General Charles O’Hara, governor of Gibraltar.

Agnes Berry

Subsequently, upon the family’s return to England, they spent some time in London and visited friends.  Attractive, well-informed, and charming, the young ladies became popular in society.  During the winter of 1787, Mary and Agnes became acquainted with Horace Walpole.  According to some sources, Mr. Walpole saw them but, because of their lack of social status, declined to be introduced them.  However, Mr. Walpole heard so many favourable comments about them that he allowed the introduction at their second meeting, and speedily became an admirer of the girls, especially of Mary.  This was the beginning of a significant and intimate friendship.  Mr. Walpole, who was in his 70’s, and the young ladies, both in their twenties, became very devoted, Mr. Walpole even referring to them as his “twin wives” (1).  He introduced them to many of his friends, and obtained a house for the Berry’s in 1789.

Mary Berry

In 1790, the Berry family went abroad for a year, maintaining a correspondence with Mr. Walpole.  On their return, he convinced them to take up residence near him in Little Strawberry Hill.  Subsequently, gossip arose about the nature of Mr. Walpole’s relationship with the Berry’s, and Mary tried to cancel the arrangement, but, citing his age, Mr. Walpole convinced her to disregard the gossip, and the family remained at Little Strawberry Hill.  Horace Walpole became the Earl of Orford in December, 1791.  There are indications that he thought of asking Mary Berry to marry him, but no indication that he ever did so.

At some point during this time, General O’Hara returned to England, and renewed his acquaintance with Mary Berry.  He became engaged to Mary before he returned to Gibralter in November of 1795.  Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford apparently liked General O’Hara, but was not aware of their engagement, which was apparently kept secret from everyone.  Mary and General O’Hara corresponded, but the engagement was broken off in June of 1796, at least in part because Mary could not make up her mind to announce their engagement out of concern for the Earl’s feelings.  This was a great sorrow to Mary for the rest of her life.

The Earl died March 2, 1797.  He left Mary and Agnes each 4000 pounds, and the house, garden and long meadow of Strawberry Hill jointly for their lives.   The earl left to Mr. Berry, Mary and Agnes his printed works and his manuscripts, to be published at their discretion with any income thereof to go to them.  Although Mr. Berry was supposed to be the editor, Mary actually did all of the work.  Mr. Berry’s contribution was a paragraph praising his daughter’s efforts in the preface.  The WORKS OF HORACE WALPOLE was published in 1798, the year after the earl’s death. 

Sometime after the Peace of Amiens in 1802, the Berry family went to Paris again.  During this visit, Mary was supposedly presented to Napoleon.     She returned to England just before her published play “Fashionable Friends” was put on at Drury Lane Theatre but failed.  (It had been a success in amateur performances at Strawberry Hill.)   Apparently, there were questions of the play’s morality.  Interestingly, Mary implied that the play had been written by Walpole.  Equally interesting, when editing Walpole’s works, she had included a play entitled “Mysterious Mother” with his work even though she had written it herself.  A third play by Mary called “The Martins” was not published or performed.  After the failure of her play at Drury Lane, she went back to France with Agnes and their father, where they travelled through the south of France into Switzerland and Germany.  The family returned to England in the fall of 1803.

At some point in this period of time, Agnes fell in love with and became engaged to a cousin, Colonel Robert Ferguson (the son of Robert Berry’s brother William).  However, the marriage did not occur.  There are indications of her uncle’s disapproval and of her own reluctance to take the final step.  At any rate, she stayed with her family.  In many respects, Agnes seems to have been in her sister’s shadow, less attractive, less lively and definitely in second place in Horace Walpole’s affections, even though Mary was proud of her sister’s artistic talent and abilities.

Mary Berry went on to publish in 1810 an annotated edition of the letters of Madame du Deffand to Horace Walpole written between 1766 and 1780 and Madame du Deffand’s correspondence with Voltaire between 1759 and 1775, for which she received 200 pounds.  Their father died May 18, 1817 at Genoa, and his annuity stopped, which resulted in Mary and Agnes having to live on their own income.   They gave up Little Strawberry Hill at this time, and took residence at Devonshire Lodge in Petersham.   In 1819, Mary produced a work on Rachel Wriothesley, Lady Russell, which included letters from Lady Russell to her husband Lord William Russell written between 1672 and 1682 as well as some other letters by Lady Russell.  Mary and Agnes became personalities, known for their gatherings in their London lodgings, where they attracted artists, writers, politicians and society’s elite, including the writers Maria Edgeworth and William Makepeace Thackeray, Lord Colchester,  the Devonshires, and the Duke of Sutherland, and the artist Thomas Lawrence.  Mary seems to have been the main draw with her liveliness and literary talent, but Agnes seemed to have a talent in arrange seating in a way that encouraged the flow of conversation.
Mary Berry, later in life

Mary’s most ambitious work was a major effort and became her most famous.  The first volume, titled “A Comparative View of the Social Life of England and France from the Restoration of Charles the Second to the French Revolution” was published in 1828.  The second volume “Social Life in England and France from the French Revolution in 1789 to that of July of 1830” came out in 1831.  These two volumes were reissued as a single volume under the title “England and France: a comparative View of the Social  Condition of both Countries” in the complete edition of her “Works” in 1844. 

Mary and Agnes seem to have maintained their social lifestyle as time went on, even as Agnes’ health began to deteriorate, noticeably by 1849.  She survived until her death in January 1852.  Mary did not long survive her sister, passing away November 20, 1852.  They are buried in the same grave in St. Peter’s churchyard, Petersham.  In 1865, Lady Theresa Lewis edited and published “Extracts from the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry from 1783 to 1852.”

(1)   Melville, Lewis.  REGENCY LADIES. P. 95
Sources include:
Melville, Lewis.  REGENCY LADIES.  New York: George H. Doran Company, 1926

Twickenham Museum.  “The Berry Sisters” (no author or publication date). Here.

A Web of English History.  “Mary Berry (1753-1852)” by Charles Kent, published 1885.  Website is the intellectual property of Dr. Marjory Bloy.  Here.  “Local History Notes.  St. Peter’s Church, Petersham” (no author or publication date).   Here.  ENCYCLOPEDIA OF BRITISH WRITERS, 16th, 17th and 18th CENTURIES, Alan Hager, ed.  “Berry, Mary.”  P. 20. New York: Book Builders LLC, Facts on File, 2005.  Here. HORACE WALPOLE by Austin Dobson, 1893.   Here.  EXTRACTS OF THE JOURNALS AND CORRESPONDENCE OF MISS BERRY.  Mary Berry (1763-1852).  Here.

Photos courtesy of Margaret Evans Porter, used with permission.

Lauren Gilbert's first published book, HEYERWOOD, A Novel, was released in 1991.  A second book, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is in process.  She lives in Florida, and will be attending the Amelia Island Book Festival in February.  Find out more about her by visiting her website Here:

Swear Like a Viking – A (Very) Short History of Early Medieval Swearing

by Kelly Evans

We all swear sometimes, it can’t be helped. It’s a gut reaction to an unexpected event, whether hitting your thumb with a hammer or watching Ned Stark’s demise on Game of Thrones. Research suggests that swearing helps with pain and is actually a sign of intelligence. (Study done by Psychologists Kristin Jay and Timothy Jay of Marist College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts).

But where did swearing actually come from? And did those living in the early medieval period swear as much as we do?

Our historical sources for the early middle ages were, in the main, written by monks, the least likely group you’ll hear utter profanities. The belief that oaths caused actual physical harm to the ascended body of Christ existed,  and no monk worth his salt would dare risk his mortal soul by adding an oath or two to his manuscript.

But swearing is as natural as, well, bodily functions. Ahh, those bodily functions, used for all manner of insulting comparison today. Surely the Anglo Saxons would have used the same, erm, material for their insults? The answer is, probably not. There was much less privacy in the middle ages, as Melissa Mohr, in her book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing explains: “The sexual and excremental words were not charged, basically because people in the Middle Ages had much less privacy than we do… so they had a much less advanced sense of shame.”

(Speaking of sh*t, the word did exist in Anglo-Saxon times but was not used as a profanity. Same goes with the word fart, in case you wondered).

Enter the Vikings. Now here are a rough and ready group of men with large swords and even larger beards. Surely they must have sworn? Of course they did.

One of the most offensive things you could call a Viking was a rassragr. Those who’ve watched the QI episode that mentioned this word know that Steven Fry, the host, refused to share the meaning while on air. The shortest meaning is a man who is demonstrably sodomized. Implying this about a man was so horrendous that the insulted man could kill the insulter without punishment or retribution.

Calling a man a "mare," or a "woman," or worse, argr (its polite meaning is "cowardly"; its sexual meaning is "emasculated, unmanned, womanish") could also call down the weight of fullrettirsorð, (the full weight of the law). In the Lokasenna ("The Insolence of Loki"), the term argr is bandied about openly.

In my novel The Northern Queen my Vikings use a number of Norse swear words, rassragr among them. Some are obvious (can you guess what bikkja means? Or hundr?) but others are not. A few examples make little sense without a bit of background knowledge. Hrafnasueltir, for example, means raven starver. Seemingly inoffensive until you remember how important ravens are to Norse mythology; anyone who starved ravens would be considered a coward and a fool.

So if you’re having a bad day but rude language is banned in your office, try a few Norse curses. Use lombungr for the morons or idiots in your life. And keep bacraut in your pocket for when someone is really bothering you. It means asshole.