Wednesday, August 31, 2016

An Ancient Favourite: Cheesecake

By Lauren Gilbert

Cheesecake could be considered the quintessential American dessert. However, that would be denying the incredibly long history of this dessert, a true culinary evolution. Cheesecake may have been the earliest wedding cake. Ancient cheese molds dated about 2000 b.c. were excavated in Greece, and cheese making existed centuries before then. Considered a source of energy, it appears that cheesecake was served to athletes in the Olympic games in 776 b.c. They combined cheese, honey, wheat and flour and baked it into a cake. The first recipe was written by Athenaeus in approximately 230 a.d. and instructed the baker to pound the cheese until smooth, mix with honey and spring wheat flour, heat into a mass, cool and serve. Clearly it was a very simple dish.

Libum-Sweet Cheesecake Ingredients and Recipe

Of course, the Romans took cheesecake along with everything else when they conquered Greece. They added their own ingredients to the recipe, including eggs, baked it under hot bricks and served it warm. The mixing technique included crushing the cheese. Marcus Porcius Cato, who died 149 b.c., wrote De Agricultura (or De re Rustica) discussing farm management, and included what is considered the oldest known Roman cheesecake recipe: “(LXXV) This is the recipe for cheese cake (libum): Bray well two pounds of cheese in a mortar, and, when this is done, pour in a pound of corn meal (or, if you want to be more dainty, a half pound of flour) and mix it thoroughly with the cheese. Add one egg and beat it well. Pat into a cake, place it on leaves and bake slowly on a hot hearth stone under a dish.” (1) Clearly, the Romans enjoyed savoury as well as sweet cheesecake, as honey does not appear in this recipe. Sometimes, the mixed ingredients were poured into a pastry shell and baked that way.

Cheesecake accompanied the Romans to Europe, Great Britain and Scandinavia by 1000 b.c., as they conquered and traded. Different locations meant different cultures, different tastes, and different ingredients caused adjustments to the recipes. The earliest English cookbook, Forme of Cury (1390), compiled by the master cooks of King Richard II and written on vellum, included a recipe that involved a pastry shell baked with a filling of cheese, egg yolks, saffron, ginger and salt. In 1545, A Propre new booke of Cokery was printed (the first printed cookbook) with, of course, recipes for cheesecakes. A subsequent edition was issued in 1557. One recipe is called (in modern English) to make a tart of cheese. This recipe calls for hard cheese with rind removed and sliced, milk or water, egg yolks, sugar and sweet butter. The cheese was placed in a shallow dish, the milk or water poured over, and set aside to soak for 3 hours. The cheese was drained and pounded in a mortar, then mixed with the egg yolks. The mixture was strained, then mixed with the sugar and butter. This filling was poured into a blind-baked pastry, then baked until the cheese filling had set.(2) This recipe seems to be the recipe supposedly used in Henry VIII’s kitchen. The sugar and spices used would have made cheesecake a luxury dish, as these were very expensive ingredients.

English recipes included cheeseless options, as well as options using drained curds. The curds would have been softer, which would have made preparation easier for the cook. An Elizabethan recipe was made up of drained curds, butter, currants, rosewater and nutmeg, and baked in a pastry case. In a 17th century recipe, the instructions start with combining milk and rennet to make curds, then blending the drained fresh curds with thick cream, sweet butter, eggs, currants, cloves, nutmeg and mace (spices beaten), sugar, and rosewater. After mixing well, this was poured into a puff paste and baked.(3) Another 17th Century recipe for curd-cakes is a variation, and involved making a batter of curds, eggs (minus some of the whites), sugar, nutmeg and flour mixed, then fried in a little butter. (4) The cheeseless option sounded very much like a custard pie, as it contained a filling of cream, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, pepper and currants, baked in a pastry “coffin”. (5) Samuel Pepys was known to be passionate about cheesecake, writing in his diary about places that served it multiple times.

By the 18th century, cheesecake was firmly established as a national favourite. Recipes abounded in cookbooks, including Eliza Smith’s THE COMPLEAT HOUSEWIFE, and Hannah Glasse’s THE ART OF COOKERY MADE PLAIN AND EASY. Martha Lloyd, a friend of Jane Austen’s who lived with Jane and her family before marrying Jane’s brother Francis, had multiple recipes for cheesecakes. The effects of cheesecake on the figure were also well known. A caricature by Isaac Cruikshank titled “The Rage, or Shepherds I have lost my waist” was published December 1, 1794, bewailed the need to forgo jellies, cheesecakes and other sweets to satisfy a fashionable dressmakers requirements. It clearly had evolved to a dessert recognizable today, and, within England, regional twists were common. Cheesecake was also carried to the colonies, including America, as demonstrated by a tavern called the Cheesecake House established in Philadelphia in the 1730s and the first American edition of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy published in 1805 in Alexandria Virginia with multiple cheesecake recipes.

Something Like A Valentine by George Cruikshank

In 1849, George Cruikshank published a caricature, “Something Like a Valentine,” in which he avoided sentiment and listed the material advantages to marriage, including money, jewelry, a grand piano and cheesecake. Unaccountably, as the 19th century progressed, the popularity of traditional cheesecake began to wane and by the middle of the 19th century, recipes were not as prevalent. Of course, by the late 19th century, cream cheese had been invented in America, starting the evolution to the modern cheesecake known today. Back in England, traditional recipes could, and still can, be found in specific locales, such as Deptford cheesecake, a traditional cake made with curd cheese, although fresh ricotta is shown as an acceptable alternative. (You can find a modern recipe in “The Devil at Work in Deptford” – link below.) Another local favourite is Yorkshire Curd Tart, which is also made with curd cheese, and spiced with allspice. (A modern recipe is available in “Yorkshire Curd Tart”- link below.) Both of these articles contain instructions for making curds to use in the recipes if a local source for fresh curds or curd cheese is not available.

Sources include:

World History International. Project Gutenberg e-book. ROMAN FARM MANAGEMENT THE TREATISES OF CATO AND VARRO DONE INTO ENGLISH, WITH NOTES OF MODERN INSTANCES BY A VIRGINIA FARMER, 1918. Released April 25, 2004. (Footnote 1) Here.

A PROPER NEW BOOKE OF COKERYE Classic Tudor Cookery. Kindle Edition. by Dafyd Lloyd Evans. Nemeton: June 27, 2012. This is a facsimile edition of the volume published in 1557, based on the 1545 edition. (Footnote 2)

A Boke of Good Cookery presents 17th Century English Recipes. “To Make Cheese-Cakes-the best way.” From The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight in Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery, 1675. (Footnote 3) Here. “To make Curd-Cakes.” From A True Gentlewomans Delight, 1653. (Footnote 4) Here. “To make Cheese-cakes.” From A True Gentlewoman’s Delight, 1653. (Footnote 5) Here.

Google Books. Goldstein, Darra, ed. OXFORD COMPANION TO SUGAR AND SWEETS. Oxford University Press, PP. 124-125. Here.

Food Timeline. “Cheesecake.” Here.

Google Books. England Under the House of Hanover; Its History and Condition During the Reign of the Three Georges. Illustrated from the Caricatures and Satires of the Day. Vol. II. Wright, Thomas, esq. London: Richard Bentley, 1849. p. 316 Google Books. England Under the House of Hanover; Its History and Condition During the Reign of the Three Georges. Illustrated from the Caricatures and Satires of the Day. Vol. II. Wright, Thomas, esq. London: Richard Bentley, 1849. p. 316 Here. (The caricature described can be viewed clearly Here. Scroll down!)

Hickman, Peggy. A JANE AUSTEN HOUSEHOLD BOOK with Martha Lloyd’s recipes. Newton Abbot: David & Charles 1977.

Life and Food. “The Devil at Work in Deptford” by David Porter. October 13, 2011. Here.

British Food-A History. “Yorkshire Curd Tart.” February 9, 2014. Here.

All images from Wikimedia Commons:

Libum-Sweet Cheesecake Ingredients and History. Here. (Uploaded December 28, 2013 by Marcus Cyron)

Curds and Whey by Thomas Rowlandson 1820. Here. Held by British Library, released to public domain.

Something Like A Valentine by George Cruikshank 1848, from A Comic Almanack of 1849. Here.


Lauren Gilbert's first published book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, was published in 2011. A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT is due out in early 2017. Please visit her website Here. She lives in Florida with her husband, with fresh herbs and roses in the garden.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Worked Willingly with Hands: The Prehistory of Flax and Linen

by Mark Patton

"Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies ... She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands." Proverbs 31, 10-31.

Linen has been prized as a fabric for thousands of years. It is made from the flax plant (Linum usitatisimum), first domesticated in the Middle East in around 7000 BC. The Egyptians used it for wrapping mummies and to make the clothing of their priests; its first appearance in Europe is in the lake villages of Switzerland and Germany around five thousand years ago; the Romans used it for the sails of their ships. It has often been assumed that it was they who introduced it to the British Isles, but a recent archaeological discovery in Cambridgeshire has changed all that.

Flowers of domesticated flax. Photo: D. Gordon E. Robertson (licensed under CCA).
Flax field in North-West Dakota. Photo: Bookworm 857158367 (licensed under CCA).

The site of Must Farm, dubbed "Britain's Pompeii" by some, is a three thousand year-old riverside settlement where waterlogged conditions have allowed for an almost unprecedented survival of organic materials, including wood and fabric. With its houses built on stilts over the river, the settlement is remarkably similar to the Alpine lake villages. Fourteen centuries earlier, people from central Europe (the descendants, perhaps, of Otzi the ice-man, who died in the Italian Alps in around 3,300 BC) may have been the first to bring the knowledge of metal-working to Britain. Now it seems that they, or their own descendants, may also have brought with them the knowledge of how to turn flax into linen.

The Late Bronze Age site of Must Farm, Cambridgeshire. Photo: Dr Colleen Morgan (licensed under CCA).
Reconstructed Bronze Age pile-dwellings at Lake Constance, Germany. Photo: Traveler100 (licensed under GNU).

In fact, the wild progenitor of domesticated flax, Linum bienne, had been growing in England all through the Stone Age, but, whereas it does not take much imagination to understand that the fur of a bear or beaver can be turned into warm clothing or even that the wool of sheep and goats might be spun and woven into cloth, the processing of flax into linen is a far more complicated business.

Linum bienne, the wild flax plant. Photo: Alvesgaspar (licensed under GNU).

Flax fibre is extracted from the "bast" that lies beneath the surface of the stem of the flax plant. Today, much of the processing is done mechanically, but, traditionally, the plants were uprooted, rather than cut, to maximise the length of the fibres. It must then be "retted," or left in contact with water, so that the cellular tissue and pectins that surround the fibres can rot away. The best quality linen is produced by "field-retting" (or "dew-retting") leaving the crop in the field and turning it periodically. This works well in Canada, China and Russia, where most commercial flax production takes place today, but is unsuited to less predictable climates, such as that of the British Isles, where too much or too little rainfall could easily spoil an entire crop.

Flax harvesting, by Emile Claus, 1904, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Photo: Georges Jansoone (image is in the Public Domain).

British flax was, historically, either "stream-retted" (left weighted down in flowing water for a period of weeks - almost certainly the option used by the Late Bronze Age community at Must Farm) or (although this is considered to produce linen of inferior quality), "pond-retted" in still water. Seamus Heaney, in his poem, "Death of a Naturalist," describes how, in the Northern Ireland of his youth:

"All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighed down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell."

These sights, sounds and smells must have been very familiar to people living at Must Farm.

The flax fibres must then be "broken" and "scutched," to remove the unusable material, and finally "heckled" with a comb, or a bed of nails, before it can be spun and woven into a cloth that may have been a significant export for the Bronze Age people of East Anglia, whose trade networks seem to have extended from Scandinavia to Italy's Po Valley.

Breaking flax: wooden tools for this task were found at Must Farm. Photo: Pymous (licensed under GNU).
Scutching flax. Photo: Pymous (licensed under GNU).
Heckling flax. Photo: Pymous (licensed under GNU).
Bronze heckle for flax-processing. Photo: Kozuch (licensed under CCA).
Flax fibres before and after processing. Photo: Aamiri77 (licensed under CCA).


Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Monday, August 29, 2016

A 12th Century Welsh Prince in America: The Legend of Prince Madog

by Kristin Gleeson

In Washington, D.C. in 1801, a Lt Joseph Roberts, a Welshman, was seated in a hotel restaurant and spoke in Welsh to the waiter he knew to be from Wales. To his astonishment a Native American chief of some minor tribe in Washington to sign a treaty, approached him and asked Roberts in Welsh, “Is that thy language?”
Roberts told him it was and the Native American said that it was his language too. Roberts questioned him and discovered that the whole tribe, located about 800 miles southwest of Philadelphia, spoke the language and it had been their language stretching back generations.

Mandans by Geoge Catlin
The account was published in a Welsh publication in 1805, Y Greal Neu Eurgrawn and in the Public Advertiser in 1819 and was one of many reports that fostered the legend of Prince Madog (or Madoc as it is sometimes spelled) sailing to America in 1169 and landing in Mobile Bay near what is now Alabama.

According to the legend, Prince Madog’s father, Owain ap Gruffydd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd, died leaving ten sons from several different marriages.  In Welsh tradition the eldest wasn’t automatically the heir, so the throne was up for grabs.  The oldest son, Iorewerth, couldn’t claim the throne in any case, because he had a deep scar across his face. In Welsh tradition anyone one with such a physical blemish wasn’t allowed to be king.  Another son, Howel/Hwyel, who was something of a poet and had an Irish mother, Pyvog, seized the throne and held it precariously for two years. He went to Ireland to claim his mother’s property and found on his return his brother Davydd had claimed the throne.

Dolwyddelan Castle
Against this backdrop, Prince Madog, a much younger son, decided to take to the seas. Little is known of his early years. Legend would have it that he was born at Dolwyddelan Castle, rather than at the king’s seat of Aberffraw and that his mother’s name was Brenda.  He was raised in secret, because he had a club foot, by a man named Pendaran and it wasn’t until he was sixteen, on his mother’s deathbed that she told him the truth of his parentage.

He then spent years sailing around France, Spain and into the Mediterranean, trading in various ports. When the king, his father died and the factions formed Owain decided to leave and resume his sea travels. Navigation was still primitive in the 12th century making such a voyage extremely risky, but as a few brave re-enactors of the 20th century have demonstrated, not impossible.

Judging from where he was supposed to have landed in America it is most probable that boarding his ship, the Gwennan Gorn, and with a crew of about 20, he began his voyage in Wales, possibly at Abergwili, sailed around Cornwall to France, then down along the French coast. It was common knowledge at this this time that there were two mighty ocean currents, one that flowed westward from Europe and the other one back again so that it’s entirely plausible that the strong ocean currents caught him up and took him into the Canaries and then eventually to what is now the Alabama and Florida coast. There he sailed up along the coast and ended up in what is now Mobile Bay, Alabama.  He landed, left a few there, and returned to Wales to bring more colonists. Those left behind travelled upriver encountering friendly and unfriendly natives and built stone structures along the way, until they eventually settled in the Great Plains of the Midwest.

There is no mention of Owain’s son in the oldest Welsh chronicles, the Chronicle of Princes or the Annals of Wales, though there were many called Madog whose deeds were recorded. But many of the old records were destroyed by Edward I.There does exist an ancient Welsh manuscript in the Cottonian Collection in the British museum containing a long account of the lineage of Gruffydd ap Cynan, citing him as the father of Owain and the grandfather of “Madawc.”  In the same collection there’s a Latin manuscript that identifies Gruffydd as the son of Cynan and the father of Owain.
Welsh bards of the early 15th century, before Columbus’s voyage, also mention Madog in their works. (Bards were nearly royal in status and their works carried historic significance, mention). One poem described Madog in this manner:

…Madog am I, the son of Owain Gwynedd,
With stature large and comely grace adorned,
No lands at home, nor store of wealth me pleased,
My mind was whole to search the ocean seas.(Maredudd ap Rhys, transl. from Welsh).

The legend attained its greatest prominence during the Elizabethan era, when English and Welsh writers wrote of the claim that Madog had gone to the Americas as an assertion of prior discovery, and hence legal possession, of North America by the Kingdom of England.

In the following decades and centuries there were many reported encounters with ‘white Indians’ and a few stating also that they spoke Welsh, before and after Joseph Roberts startling account.
In 1686 a Reverend Morgan Jones, rector of a church in Long Island NY, wrote a letter to a noted Welsh Quaker leader of Philadelphia recounting a journey he took 20 years earlier when he was dispatched from Virginia to South Carolina to be a minister to a newly formed colony. He was there for eight months, but due to stavation he decided to return to Virginia on foot with some of the group. On the way the Tuscarora took them prisoners. A leader of another tribe, called the “Doeg” saw them there, and overhearing Jones and the others converse in Welsh went over to them and, speaking in Welsh, told him that he wasn’t to worry, he wouldn’t die. The leader ransomed Jones and his five colleagues and took them back to the Doeg town where he and the others were entertained for 4 months. Jones preached to them several times a week in the Welsh language. Eventually he and his friends left, fully provisioned by the Doeg people.

In 1753 a Colonel wrote a letter to the governor of Virginia and mentioned that three young French priests had just returned from a missionary trip among the Indians and brought back a man who spoke Welsh. Other Welsh speaking missionaries in the 18th century cited encounters with Welsh-speaking natives,  but it was Morgan Jones’ story that received the most publicity. His account was rewritten and published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1740 and reprinted in the New York Gazette in 1777 as well as various other journals through to the early 19th century.

In the 1790s William Agustus Bowles, Director General of the Creek Nation and also an actor, linguist as well as a liar, adventurer and charlatan, made a flamboyant appearance in London sporting an ostrich plume topped turban and large silver gorget around his throat and a silver tomahawk at his side. The Welshmen present in London society at this time used the opportunity to question him about the Welsh speaking tribe. Bowles confirmed the legend, saying he had encountered them in the presence of Welshmen.

Bowles confirmation fuelled a determination of a small group of Welshmen to launch an expedition to document conclusively the presence of the Welsh speaking tribe. Back in Wales, a similar interest had been fostered. One such person was John Evans who went to America and in 1793 set out on his own from Philadelphia, disillusioned by the lack of interest and funds from his Welsh counterparts in America, to find the fabled tribe. He arrived in St Louis at time when it was the centre of a four-power political struggle. The USA was anxious to expand westward; Britain threatened to push southwards from Canada with their trading organisation; France, in eastern Canada also threatened with their trading companies and Spain struggled to maintain control of this land it owned west of the Mississippi. Jones was arrested as a spy and imprisoned for 2 years. He was eventually released and became a Spanish agent. In the company of two Scotsmen, Jones set out on his expedition. He reached the Omahas and traded with them and ended up spending the winter there. While there, he received word that the British had established a fort in the Mandan territory where it was now speculated that the Welsh speaking tribe lived.

After a difficult journey Evans reached a Mandan village and he handed out gifts to the welcoming people. The British were already present, but Evans ousted them within five days and took possession of their fort. Spain declared war on Britain a few days later. Jones was thereby technically a traitor. He spent the next 6 months in the Mandan territory, questioning the natives closely. He made another perilous journey back to St Louis and delivered his journal and maps to the Spanish. He then wrote a note to a Dr Samuel Jones in Philadelphia saying that the Welsh Indians didn’t exist. Perhaps embittered and angry against his countrymen and a country where he would now be branded a traitor, Jones, many years later is supposed to have bragged drunkenly to his friends that he had been handsomely paid to keep quiet about the subject of the Welsh Indians who were to carry their secret to their graves because disease would soon carry them off.

Mandans by George Catlin
There were other attempts in the 19th century to document the existence of a Welsh speaking tribe by visiting the Mandan. They were found to be different in many respects from neighbouring tribes. They weren’t nomadic hunters; they lived in fixed villages and farmed. Their villages were laid out in squares made up of bee-hive shaped earth-covered lodges.  They fished in a boat that was unlike other tribes, made of will or flexible boughs in a tub shape and covered with buffalo skins (like a Welsh coracle).Their oral history said they had lived much farther south, but had been driven north and west by their enemies. The men grew beards and their hair grew grey with age and many had blue eyes with fair complexions and blonde or reddish hair. In 1833-34, the renowned painter of various tribes, George Catlin, mentored by the famous explorer William Clark, stayed among the Mandan with a German nobleman. He saw no reason to disagree with previous statements about the Mandan. Catlin emphasised in his own reports that their hair was finer, more dark brown than black, and that a few had fair hair. Their eyes weren’t black, but brown or sometimes even grey.  His portraits show the women with beautifully chiselled faces, large bright blue eyes, long noses and thin cupid bow lips.
Plaque at Mobile Bay
Were the Welsh really in America in the 12th century? There is no apparent strong archaeological proof of this voyage in any part of America, but there exist in Alabama, Georgia and Tennesee at least three heavy stone fortifications which archaelogists agree were built a few hundred years before Columbus arrived and are unlike any known Native American defence works. All three are thought to be the work of one group of people within a single generation. These forts are located close to the Dog River (formerly known as the Mad Dog River) that other rivers that connect to the entrance to Mobile Bay.

There are many legends and even some petroglyphs that suggest the presence of Europeans before Columbus and even before Eric the Red, but the Legend of Prince Madog of Wales has all the elements of romantic tale that never seems to die.


Kristin Gleeson has a Ph.D. in history and a Masters of Library Science. She writes historical novels and non-fiction history.One of her novels, Along the Far Shores features the Welsh legend and is told through the eyes of an Irish woman who is washed ashore on the gulf coast and must try and find her way back to Prince Madog and his crew. You can find more about Kristin Gleeson on her website.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Dress, Music and Fighting: 11th-century life through the eyes of an Anglo-Saxon artist (Part II - Music & Fighting)

By Christopher Monk

As a specialist in Anglo-Saxon cultural history, I’ve found it immensely rewarding to explore the world of the early English peoples through the illustrated pages of their books.  My favourite manuscript for doing this is the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch (see HERE for Part I of this article)

Getting down with the womenfolk
For my second detail from the Hexateuch, I want to focus on a particular ‘female’ skill, and in doing so throw something out there that may cause a stir.  Now, I bet you’re thinking weaving, spinning or embroidery, aren’t you?  Well, I’m not going there; instead we’re going to look at women as musicians.

When was the last time you saw in a ‘medieval’ film a woman playing a musical instrument in the feast hall? Whenever an Anglo-Saxon scop (musical poet) is called for, you just know it will be a male actor chosen. Now I’m not saying that women were employed as scops in Anglo-Saxon times – in reality, ‘professional’ scops were likely male, as is suggested by the poem Beowulf, in which the scop is depicted as part of the all-male comitatus, or band of warriors – but I am saying that the idea of women playing music is not alien to the Anglo-Saxon imagination.  Take a gander at this picture of Miriam (the sister of Moses and Aaron, also known as Mary or Maria) and her women.

As you see, most of the women are playing something akin to the triangular harp.  The Harley Psalter, produced in Canterbury around the same time as the Hexateuch, shows similar instruments.  Note, too, that the woman on the far left is playing a smaller stringed instrument that resembles the lyre. 

Now you might be thinking that the artist had to show the women playing their stringed instruments because that’s what it says in the Old English text.  Indeed, the text states that they ‘took their harps (OE hearpe) in hand and praised and glorified God both with harp and with song (OE lofsang, literally ‘praise-song’)’. However, there’s more to it than that.  

The Latin Vulgate text actually says that Miriam ‘took a timbrel (Lat. tympanum) in her hand: and all the women went forth after her with timbrels and with dances’ (Exodus 15:20).  It would seem that the anonymous translator was unfamiliar with the timbrel, or tambourine, which was not yet introduced into Europe.  

Unwise as it is here to be categorical, I will simply suggest that the translator substituted an instrument with which he was familiar, the harp, and which was familiar to him in the very context of contemporary women playing instruments.  Furthermore, and rather fascinatingly, he didn’t seem to like the idea of women dancing and so instead he focuses on their instrument playing and singing.  

The artist apparently had no trouble in following the translator’s lead, though, remarkably, he also chose to make an additional contribution by depicting the men dancing, which is not described either in the Hexateuch text or the Latin Vulgate.

Perhaps what we are seeing here is a culturally acceptable interpretation of this biblical scene, and as a consequence we are shown that women in the late-Anglo-Saxon period could pick up their harp as well as their spindle!

Kicking the hell out of one another
Back to the men for my final insight from the Hexateuch.  And what is it in Anglo-Saxon culture that men did best?  All you living history performers know, don’t you?  Yes, fighting, of course.  Well my focus here is less on swordsmanship and valour, and rather more on getting the job done. 

Take a look at Moses’ fighting technique.  He’s just about to avenge a brother Israelite by slaying his killer, an Egyptian slave-driver (Exodus 2:11, 12).  Now ignore the ridiculously big sword in Moses’ right hand and instead take a close look at his left hand and right foot.  

Aha!  It would seem that the best way to demobilise your enemy was to grab his beard, place your foot firmly and swiftly in his abdomen, and then dispatch the sword.  None of this is described in either the Hexateuch or Vulgate texts, so it seems reasonable to suggest that the artist was drawing upon contemporary experience.  

But wait, I hear you cry, the artist was a monk, so would likely not be conversant with fighting. That may be the case – though, it should be noted, monks came from all sorts of backgrounds, including in some cases a warrior one – but there is other evidence that may shed light on this.  

The early Anglo-Saxon law of Ethelbert (c.600) refers to the ‘seizing of hair’ in the context of injuries from acts of violence, for which compensation had to be paid to the victim by the perpetrator.  Now it may be that this law refers specifically to cutting off a man’s hair as a means of insulting him (the OE word used, feaxfang, literally means ‘hair-booty’), something that is referred to in the laws of Alfred the Great (reigned 871-899), where beard-cutting is also mentioned.  Or it may simply mean that men grabbed other men’s hair when fighting.

In any case, it seems that seizing a man by his hair, or indeed his beard, may have been a common means of restraining a man in order to inflict violence upon him.  Perhaps the monk artist had witnessed this mode of ‘street fighting’ and tapped into his personal recollection as a means of imagining Moses’ vengeance.

Certainly when we examine images of warfare in the Hexateuch, we can appreciate that the artist didn’t just stick with a neatly choreographed sword-and-shield technique, but, as you see in the next two images, went as far as depicting warriors trampling on the heads and bodies of their enemies and, yes, pulling hair – a reflection perhaps of the real mess of war.

Well I hope you’ve enjoyed this short foray into Anglo-Saxon art as a means of gaining insight into the lives of the peoples of early medieval England.  There is so much more to be studied in the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch, in terms of cultural practices and items of everyday life: feasting, burying the dead and midwifery, for example; or baskets, buckets, wagons and farming tools, to name just a few objects.  

A more thorough study of the art of this remarkable book would, I suggest, open up a finer reading of Anglo-Saxon culture alongside historical and archaeological records.  Perhaps I should write a book about it...  

Works consulted:
Graham Lawson and Susan Rankin, ‘Music’, and Graeme Lawson, ‘Musical Instruments’, from The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Michael Lapidge et al. (Blackwell, 2001). 
Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England: Revised and enlarged edition (Boydell, 2004).
Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), English Historical Documents c. 500-1042 (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955).

Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary:
Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources:
Douay-Rheims Bible:
The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch: Just type ‘hexateuch’ into the search box.

Dr Christopher Monk taught for four years at the University of Manchester (UK) on subjects ranging from the language and history of Beowulf to sex and sexuality in Anglo-Saxon art.  He now works as an independent consultant and development editor.  Recently he was the medieval history and manuscript expert for a major permanent exhibition at Rochester Cathedral (due to open later in 2016) about one of Britain’s most important, but overlooked, medieval books, the twelfth-century Textus Roffensis.  Chris continues to juggle scholarly work with creative writing.  He has just published a chapter in a collection of essays about the Bayeux Tapestry, and has an eBook under review called Sodom in the Anglo-Saxon Imagination.  But he’s also written a screenplay based in 1978 about a Kate Bush obsessive and is presently writing what he describes as “a sort of historical fantasy prequel to Beowulf”. He blogs as the transhistorical Anglo-Saxon Monk. Rounded Globe have just announced that they are to publish Christopher's study *Sodom in the Anglo-Saxon Imagination* as an eBook. 
Find him: At his website

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Celtic Community

by Annie Whitehead

In the first of this series, Who Were the Celts*, I relied mainly on archaeological evidence. For the second, How the Celts Lived,** I relied on the Greek writers, who seem to have said little about the role of Celtic women, but are still our only real sources. Some of the information for this portion is taken from the findings of modern scholarship.

Women used to provide a dowry, but the men had to offer comparable value from their own property. Husbands had absolute power over their wives.

Among the Bretons, the women belonged to ten or twelve men at a time, particularly to brothers, fathers, or their children; however, the children born of such unions belonged to the man who had the woman while she was still a virgin. In Ireland, it was thought perfectly natural for men to have sexual relations with other men’s wives, mothers or sisters. Community of wives was the rule in Caledonia.

The status of women among the Celts seems to have been quite wretched. However, in the mid-first century AD, in what is now Great Britain, the Brigantes were in fact governed by a woman, Cartismandua (Cartimandua) and, in 61 AD, Boudicca, a woman of royal  blood, commanded the army of the ancient Britons. Yet no similar state of affairs can be found among other tribes or at earlier periods.

Queen Boudica by John Opie - public domain

The fidelity of Celtic women was famous throughout the ancient world, as can be seen from certain legends. Polybius [1] apparently spoke to a Galatian woman, Chiomara, wife of the king of Tolistobogii. She had been captured and raped by a Roman centurion around 189 BC. He was promised a large sum of money for her return. As she was being returned, she signalled to her compatriots to cut off the centurion's head. She presented the head to her husband, saying that it was finer thing even than fidelity, that only one man who had been her lover should remain alive.

Besides conjugal fidelity, Gaulish women had other qualities. Apparently they were beautiful, fertile, good nursing mothers, and they took great care of their children.

It is known that the Celtic women accompanied their menfolk into battle. The wives of the Helvetii defended entrenched positions against the Romans; the wives of the Britons encouraged them to a greater ardour in combat. Before the conquest of Cisalpine Gaul (Gaul on the Roman side of the Alps), a terrible civil war was fought, and the women strode into the midst of the armies, taking the role of arbiters to resolve the dispute.

Caesar wrote that in Gaul, the father had the power of life and death over his children. This was also true of the Ancient Britons, and the Irish. Caesar also reported on a distinctive custom:
“The Gauls are unlike the other peoples in that they do not allow their children to address them in public until they have reached the age at which they are capable of performing their military service; they feel it is a disgrace for a man’s son to appear with him in public while still a child.” [2]
This could mean that sons remained with their mothers until they reached the age of military action or that children were brought up away from home.

The Family Unit
Irish Iron Age Celts had larger units consisting of four generations of descendants from a common great-grandfather; this unit was known as the derbfine and had its own identity in law, owning land collectively. The larger group, known as tuath or 'tribe', was ruled by the chief or king.

Below the nobles were ordinary freemen, farmers who paid food-rent to the king and received cattle from the nobles in return for obligations. At the bottom of the social pyramid were, unsurprisingly perhaps, the slaves. There were learned men, the aes dána (men of art) whose skills gave them status above that or their birth and placed them on a similar level in society to warriors.

There is some evidence to suggest that homosexuality was fairly openly practised among the Celts, and that it was not frowned upon. Diodorus [3] wrote that

“The Celtic women are not only as tall as the men but as courageous … but despite their charm the men will have nothing to do with them. They long instead for the embrace of their own sex. It is particularly surprising that they attach no value to either dignity or decency, offering their bodies to each other without further ado. This is not regarded as at all harmful; on the contrary, if they are rejected in their approaches, they feel insulted.” [4]

Strabo [5] confirms these homosexual practices with the brief mention that the young men of Gaul were “shamelessly generous with their boyish charms.”

Gerhard Herm wrote that as soon as they were old enough to bear arms, young people indeed lived away from home, living almost wholly with others of their own sex. They learned riding, swordsmanship, hunting, and drinking. They had to prove themselves in the field, and saw their like as the only suitable company. It is easy to see that this placed emphasis on male friendships, and Herm suggested that this gave rise to the cult of the male body. Certainly, according to Strabo, the Celts "tried to avoid becoming fat or pot-bellied, and they punished any boy whose waist was larger than the standard they set." Diodorus linked this to the wearing of the "armbands of all sorts" and said that the Celts "wear about their necks heavy rings of solid gold."

The Celtiberians used to abandon their dead for the vultures to eat. The Gauls who took Rome used to bury their dead; and it was not until an epidemic occurred that they began to pile up corpses to burn them. Plutarch [6] remarked that the Gauls did not lament the passing of a dead man.

The Dying Gaul - public domain image

The funerals of the Celts of Gaul, who were relatively highly civilised, were quite splendid affairs. Anything thought to have been valued by a person during his lifetime was put on the pyre along with the body, even domestic animals.

At the time when bronze was the predominant metal for the manufacture of weapons, incineration was practised in various parts of Gaul, particularly in the southeast and north. When bronze swords disappeared, to be replaced by iron, burial under artificial mounds (tumuli) or in the earth itself, became more common.

Galician Celtic Stele for the deceased, called Apana, presumably an aristocrat of the tribe of Celtic Supertamáricos. Second Century of the Common Era. Image - public domain

One section of the Celtic community with which most people are familiar is the Druidic tradition. The Druids and their role will be examined in the last of this series, which will focus on government and Social Structure.

Next time: Occupations and Leisure Activities
*  ** Read the previous articles HERE and HERE

[1] Polybius, or Polybus, was a Greek historian born between 210 and 205 BC, in Arcadia. He wrote a general history of his time, and died around 125 BC
[2] Quote/translation The World of the Celts - G Dottin p40
[3] Diodorus (Sicilus) of Sicily was a Greek historian who used varied literary sources with little judgement of his own, and often without regard to exact chronology. For certain periods, though, he provides the best evidence available
[4] From Gerhard Herm's The Celts p57
[5] Strabo was a Greek geographer, who lived from about 58 BC - AD 25
[6] Plutarch was a Greek historian, biographer, and essayist, who lived from 45-120 AD


Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016 and has been awarded an indieBRAG medallion. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, is available now. She is also a contributor to 1066 Turned Upside Down, an anthology of short stories re-imagining the events of 1066.
Annie's Author Page
Alvar the Kingmaker
To Be A Queen
Annie's Website
Annie's Blog

Thursday, August 25, 2016

An Unexceptional Man in Exceptional Times

by Anna Belfrage

In the guide book to Framlingham Castle, today’s protagonist is described as being “an unexceptional man”. Well, I suppose that’s what you get when you jostle for space in the annals of history with such people as Edward II, Isabella of France, Hugh Despenser, Roger Mortimer and Edward III – no matter that you were born a prince. It probably didn’t help that the unexceptional man had an exceptionally handsome and flamboyant younger brother, the far more famous Edmund, Earl of Kent, father to the equally exceptionally beautiful Joan, a.k.a. The Fair Maid of Kent.

Edward I
If we start at the beginning – always a safe bet – we need to return to the year 1290.  Late in November of that year, England’s queen, Eleanor of Castile, died. She left behind a grief-struck husband. From the day they married, him a gangly fifteen, she a pretty thirteen-year-old, they’d been more or less joined at the hip, rarely apart. Over the thirty-six years of their marriage she had given him sixteen children, of which five daughters and one son were still alive when she died. And herein lay the rub: Edward I needed a spare to the heir – after having buried so many of his and Eleanor’s children, he was far too aware of how fragile a child’s life was.

I dare say he wasn’t all that inclined to marry. He was struggling with grief, and the thought of replacing his beloved wife with a newer, younger model did not exactly fire him up. But he had duties to fulfil, and one of those duties was to broker some sort of peace with France, which was why he’d betrothed his young son to Blanche, a much younger half-sister of Philip IV of France. This Blanche came with the reputation of being astoundingly beautiful, and so in 1293 Edward decided to kill two flies with one blow and take this blushing rose as his new wife. Philip agreed to the change of groom on the condition that Edward gave up the province of Gascony.

Edward acquiesced to this, dispatched his loyal brother Edmund to fetch his bride, and was soon to realise he’d been conned. Blanche was betrothed elsewhere (!) and instead Philip suggested Edward wed his even younger half-sister, Margaret, at the time all of eleven. Edward flew into a rage and declared war on France. Some years later, Philip and Edward reached an accord whereby Edward accepted Margaret as his wife and betrothed his young son to Philip’s only daughter, Isabella.

And so, in September of 1299, winter married spring, with the sixty-year-old Edward taking the not quite twenty-year-old Margaret as his wife. Not the romance of the century, one could say, but Edward proved to be a devoted husband to his much younger wife – and she returned the favour, seemingly content with her much, much older man.  In fact, it soon became evident Edward was twice lucky in love, finding in Margaret a pearl of a woman, and by all accounts they were very happy with each other.

By the beginning of 1300, all this marital bliss had resulted in a pregnancy. Margaret was an active woman who saw no reason to curtail her activities due to being with child, and legend has it she was riding to the hounds when her waters broke. Other sources are somewhat less dramatic: our pregnant lady was on her way to the place of her confinement when her labour began. Whichever version you prefer, the delivery was difficult, requiring a lot of praying to St Thomas Becket before Thomas of Brotherton finally saw the light of the day. His royal father was ecstatic: a healthy son, a spare! And one year later, Margaret repeated the feat, presenting Edward with yet another son, Edmund of Woodstock.

Edward II, very much on his lonesome at the table
In 1307, Edward I died. His young widow was prostrate with grief, his eldest son not so much. Relations between Edward I and his namesake and heir had been fraught over the last few years, principally due to one Piers Gaveston, a man the future Edward II seemed incapable of living without. Edward I had even gone so far as to exile his son’s favoured companion, but now papa was dead, and Piers was back, and Edward II was so happy he promptly elevated Piers to the Earl of Cornwall – this despite knowing that this particular earldom was intended for the eldest of his half-brothers.

The dowager queen was not happy. At all. Even less so when Edward went on to hand over some of her dower lands to up and coming Piers. What little Thomas thought of all this is unknown, but he was still too young to be overly concerned about titles and such, and besides, he had a mother fully capable of fighting on his behalf.

In 1312, Thomas of Brotherton became the Earl of Norfolk, his lands coming out of the deceased Roger Bigod’s estate. Among his new possessions was Framlingham Castle, where he apparently left so little an impression he is not remembered at all – except as being unexceptional.  I guess the Bigod family was a hard act to follow…

In 1318, Margaret of France died, and her two young sons no longer had her holding their back. Over the coming years, the young Earl of Norfolk was to experience the greed of the new royal favourite, Hugh Despenser, first hand. The latter appropriated land belonging to Thomas, but Thomas’ protests went unheard – Edward II was far fonder of Hugh than he was of his own brother. I imagine this did not foster a loving relationship between Thomas and Hugh – or Thomas and Edward – but our hero of the day chose to keep his head down and swallow the insult.

Some time before 1320, Thomas married. For a man of such wealth and lineage, his choice of bride is peculiar. Alice was the daughter of a coroner, had no wealth, no lands – at least not compared to her husband. The king, by all accounts, was less than pleased when he was informed of his brother’s choice of bride. Maybe it was a case of true love, maybe it was merely a dalliance that led to unforeseen consequences – but for the son of a king, such consequences could have been handled without marrying the girl.

Whatever the status of his marriage, by 1321 Thomas had other matters to think about – specifically the brewing discontent among the barons. Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, and Roger Mortimer rode roughshod over Despenser lands, pillaging and destroying as they went, and soon enough the king had his back to a wall, having to face not only the triumphant Roger and Humphrey, but also his cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, who joined his voice to the other rebellious barons.

The Despensers were exiled, the king was obliged to set his seal to a document pardoning the rebel barons for their rebellion – after all, it had been done with his best interests at heart. I don’t think Edward saw it quite that way, and in this time when he no longer had Despenser at his side, it makes sense that he would turn to his half-brothers. At last an opportunity for Thomas to prove his worth to the king, to ride with his brother as he turned the tables on his rebel barons, with Lancaster and de Bohun ending up dead and Mortimer locked up in the Tower. For some months there, the brothers bonded, but then Despenser came back, and it was back to fading into the tapestries while Edward fawned over his favourite royal chancellor. Not, I suppose, an enjoyable experience for the young and reputedly hot-tempered Thomas.

It didn’t help that he was forced to surrender the lordship of Chepstow to Despenser in 1323. Nor that the king verbally rebuked him for having been somewhat remiss in his duties as Earl Marshal. Or that the king preferred to seek advice from his treasurer Stapledon and Despenser than from his half-brother.

Coronation of Edward III, Chronicles, Jean Froissart
But then, in 1326, things changed. By then Mortimer had fled the Tower and was safe in France, planning his return. The king needed all allies he could find and went out of his way to grant Thomas lands and wardships, expanded his authorities and in general made an effort to ensure his brother felt appreciated. Too little, too late. Thomas had already followed his brother into the opposing camp, and when Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer landed in England at the head of an invading army, they landed on Thomas’ lands, secure of their welcome. Some months later, Edward II was imprisoned, Edward III was crowned, and Thomas looked forward to being one of the central movers and shakers in his nephew’s realm. Not about to happen. Isabella and Mortimer had other plans, and once again Thomas was marginalised.

Frustrated by his position, Thomas joined Henry of Lancaster’s rebellion against Edward III and his regents. At the last moment, his nerve failed him, and he and brother Edmund scarpered back to the royal camp, begging their nephew for forgiveness.

Understandably, relations were somewhat cool after this, but at some point Thomas was forgiven – and to properly show just how forgiven, his only son was offered a Mortimer daughter as a bride. It wasn’t as if Thomas had the option of refusing – little Edmund of Norfolk was a great marital prize, and Mortimer had many daughters to marry off.

In 1330, the wheel of fortune did another turn. First, a turn to the worse, when Thomas’ brother, the earl of Kent, was accused of treason – an elegantly masterminded plot by Mortimer which ended up with Kent very, very dead. Some months later, it was Mortimer’s turn to die, this time due to a plot masterminded by the young king himself. Isabella was exiled from court – at least for a while – and Edward III was now firmly in control of his own kingdom.

Luttrell Psalter - knights 
At last, Thomas had come into his own. Over the coming years, he was one of his nephew’s most trusted men, albeit that he was rather dismal at managing his own personal finances. But he was brave and trustworthy, an Earl Marshal to rely on, and when it came to the infected matter of fighting the Scots, Edward was more than happy to heed Thomas’ advice.

In 1336, Thomas married for the second time – his first wife had died some time before 1330. Why he waited that long, I do not know, and yet again, his choice of bride is a bit odd – no highborn lady for our Thomas. Instead he settled on a widow, and I suppose he’d hoped for more children – just like his father before him, Thomas only had the one surviving son from his first marriage. In difference to his father, Thomas was not to have his second wife present him with more sons. Even worse, in 1337, Thomas’ only son died, leaving a little widow of his own – but no issue.

In 1338, Thomas died. He left behind a widow, two daughters, and an earldom. A short life, from our perspective, a life led in the shadows of the turmoil which distinguished the reign of his brother. And yes, in many ways it was an unremarkable life. Thomas somehow managed to avoid taking centre stage in any of the internal conflicts that plagued England, hovering in the background instead. As a survival technique it worked quite well – Thomas was never imprisoned, never lived with the threat of execution hanging over his head. Maybe that’s what distinguishes an unexceptional man, a reluctance to risk it all for a cause.

Whatever the case, Thomas of Brotherton was to leave the world one very impressive legacy: his daughter Margaret, Countess of Norfolk and Earl Marshal of England. But to her we will have to return in a future post – this formidable lady deserves it!

All pictures in the public domain


Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing. 

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. And yes, Thomas of Brotherton plays an important - not at all unexceptional - part.The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, was published in July 2016.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.

More about Anna on her website or on her blog!