• Floods

    Nothing changes.  In the 1380′s, and in fact throughout the fourteenth century, floods were a continual worry in England.

    In Hildegard’s stamping ground, the East Riding of Yorkshire, the River Humber burst its banks with wearying regularity. The countryside is very flat up there, as Noel Coward said about Norfolk, and when the river floods it rushes inland over many miles of flat agricultural land.  The Augustinian priory at Cottingham, for instance, a good fifteen miles from the river, was regularly surrounded by water, a literal moated grange.

    The Cistercians, Hildegard’s preferred monastics, spent much time, effort and money on digging dykes and rearranging the river system.  This is all recorded in painstaking detail  in the Chronicle of Melsa written in 1397.  Meaux itself  lies within an intricate network of waterways, some used to convey wool staple to the coast for shipment to the continent, some  a defence against the inundations over the marshes.  The abbot’s bridge is still there after all these centuries.

    The once busy port of Ravenser nearby is well known by historians interested in Richard II for the fact that his usurping cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, arrived there with a small army to launch his invasion and snatch the throne from Richard and make himself Henry IV.  Ravenser has long since disappeared under the waves although, they say, you can still hear the church bells ringing to warn everybody to move to higher ground.  Such was its notoriety in those days that the repeated inundations which finally destroyed it were blamed on the immorality of its inhabitants for bringing down the  wrath of god.  As then, so now.  Nothing changes.





    othing changes.


  • Historic Heston!


    I was just falling asleep the other night when the Book of the Week came on the radio.  It was Heston Blumenthal.  I nearly fell out of bed when he mentioned King Richard II.


    All became clear.

    It was because the heavenly Heston has written a book about cooking through the ages and is recreating some of the best recipes.  It so happened that King Richard commissioned the first ever English cookery book from his master chef in the Palace of Westminster.  What made it especially astonishing to me was that the previous week I’d made a few notes from that same book, The Forme of Cury.

    As Heston mentioned, they used some curious  ingredients, almond milk being one of the most popular.  English cookery was renowned at this time.  Cooks used ingredients from all over the known world.  Heston chose risotto as his typical medieval dish.  Rice was frequently eaten and was imported via Genoa from the middle east until Italy started to grow it commercially.  Other popular dishes were sweet and sour, using far more spices and herbs than we seem to use today.  There were no potatoes, of course, but soups were thickened with breadcrumbs, flour, blood and ground nuts.

    There was something called blancmanger (familiar?) but this wasn’t pudding.  It was made from rice and almond milk with shredded white meats and spices and there was another version called mawmenee which was the same thing but with added pomegranate seeds, spices and coloured with red wine.

    Colour was important in medieval times-  they ate in technicolour -  and I wonder if Heston colours his dishes?  I think saffron must have been cheaper in those days.   As for gilding with gold leaf?  Five star restaurants may do so even now but what did ordinary mortals eat?  Plenty, according to the records.  Brewetts for instance, a combination of boiled and fried meats, sweet fruits and spices, all simmered in a rich gravy and thickened with cheese and eggs.  Sounds good to me.

    I love some of the names of these dishes:  gyngawdry, macrows, chysanne, chawdon for swans and many more.  A keen cook will get a lot from King Richard’s unnamed master cook.  I’m off to try nysebek for to make pom dorryes.  Bon apetit!

  • The first woman novelist

    Some say it was Christine de Pizan, an Italian widow living in the French court when Richard II was on the throne of England.  Her most famous book, The City of Women, came out in the year Richard was murdered by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the usurper King Henry IV.  Meanwhile in England it was Chaucer who was stealing all the literary honours.  Were there an women writers like Christine de Pizan at the court of King Richard?  We do not know.  Given his pleasure in all things beautiful, in poetry, art, fashion and food, as opposed to his Lancastrian cousin’s desire for more and more wealth and power, Richard must be seen as our first ‘Renaissance prince.’  If he had lived would Christine have visited the English court?  Would English women have followed her example and started to write for the public instead of only for a private readership?  History is crammed with unanswered and unanswerable questions like this.  I recommend her writing if you don’t already know it.  It’s full of common sense and explodes a few myths about women’s lives in the fourteenth century.

  • Autumn

    It’s that time of year again when all good websites are given a make-over  Watch out for the new look!  It might encourage me to post more often.  I still never seem to have the time and realise I’ve been saying that for a couple of years now.  I will do better!  Don’t forget to givbe me your feedback and I’ll reply to you as quickly as  can.  Thanks for all your comments and encouragement over the last year.  I really appreciate it.  There’s such a lot to say so watch this space!

  • Over the Great Divide and into the ether

    Help!  It’s out there!  I mean The Dragon of Handale in its bright new ebook version.  I thought I’d never do it.  I love books.  Why try to read them on a little gadgety toy?   And, as it happens, one of my favourite websites is www.curledupwithagoodbook.com.  Go and see it if you like a book in your hand.  Meanwhile here also is The Velvet Turnshoe with its new cover and in its glorious ebook version.  Like The Dragon of Handale it can be downloaded from Kindle and ipad and from Waterstones and Barnes & Noble as well as libraries and participating bookshops.

  • A bit of history

    Handale  Priory was a real place in the fourteenth century.  Although after the Reformation little of it remained, now there’s a rather lovely Georgian farmhouse set in the deep seclusion of the valley, three miles from the sea.  With only an undulating farm track to it or a long walk uphill through the woods its solitude is complete and enchanting.  It’s easy to see that the priory it replaced must have been impressive when it was at the height of its power.

    Originally a priory for Benedictine nuns dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, it was founded in the year 1133 by Richard de Percy.  He gave  two tofts, ten acres of demesne land, and enough common pasture for 200 sheep.  Later more land was given by Engram de Bavington when Avicia was prioress.  She held it at a rent of four quarters of wheat, one half to be paid at the feast of St Martin and the other at Whitsuntide. Later it became Cistercian for the practical reason that, unlike the Benedictines, that Order did not pay taxes to the Crown.  The advowson was granted in the time of King John to Richard de Malbisse and his heirs forever and, in lieu of all services, it yielded one pound of incense yearly at the Feast of Pentecost.   After the Reformation Henry VIII granted the site to Ambrose Beckwith, a descendant of Richard Malbisse.

    Its claim to a dragon is not unusual in this wild region of northern England.  There was also a dragon at nearby Loachy Wood, a serpent at Slingsby, and another dragon at Saxhow.  I’ve mentioned before how the dragon was supposed to have the power to beguile young girls and afterwards fed on their limbs.  Luckily a young knight called Scaw came by and decided enough was enough so, buckling on his armour, he sought out the dragon’s cave.  The creature immediately sprang from its den breathing fire and rearing its crested head to transfix the intruder with its poisonouse sting.  Undaunted, young Scaw fought bravely and after a savage fight  killed the  monster.  He then married the earl’s daughter he found in the cave and obtained vast estates.  The wood where he slew the dragon is still called ‘Scaw Wood’ and the stone coffin where Scaw was eventually buried lies in a thicket near the site of the priory to this very day.

  • Arthur Conan Doyle

    Sir Arthur’s favourite of all his many novels was not one of the Sherlock Holmes puzzlers read so avidly today.  It was the one he called The White Company.  This is the novel he wished to be remembered for.  Sadly, nowadays it’s little read.  If you’re familiar with the New Forest, however, you’ll find it endlessly fascinating in its descriptions of places as well-known today as in the late fourteenth century.  If you’re a medievalist you’ll love it.  He gives a lively picture of what it was like during The One Hundred Years War as the action follows the adventures of three men-at-arms travelling from the Abbey of  Beaulieu, via Lymington and Christchurch before crossing by boat from Lepe to northern France and then on down to Aquitaine to join the army of the Prince of Wales, Edward, the Black Prince.

    Unlike today’s action-heavy medieval novels Conan Doyle takes his time to describe the landscape, the changing seasons, the customs, arms, clothes, the food and drink and all those other details that are fascinating to medievalists.  Here’s a thought, though.  Were readers better educated in his day?  I ask this because he does not limit his vocabulary to the familiar and well-worn but uses the apt word to specify his meaning.  Given that his book was a massive bestseller and wasn’t short of readers or popularity for decades, the unfamiliar words clearly didn’t put anybody off.  I’ve had to add a glossary to my own novels set in the same period because, I’m told, readers will not want to struggle with words they don’t know.  But  I wonder what readers really think about this?  It seems commonsense to use a word like arbalest, for instance, when that’s the exact word.  Those massive cross-bow missile throwers are no longer used in warfare today but how else to talk about  them without  circumlocution?

    In the pages of  The White Company I must have found over twenty words unfamiliar to me but it was a great joy to look them up in the O.E.D.  Here are some – you might know them already but they were new to me.  For instance, there’s  camisade – a shirt worn over armour for a night attack;  galeasse – a warship with oars and sails and bigger than a galleon;  rovers and hoyles – the first refers to random shooting by an archer, the second when a specific mark is aimed for.  There are many more.

    Maybe you won’t find a use for them in your everyday life but what about a culpon – a cut or portion -  or a rammocky lurden?  No translation needed.  In fact, I think I’ll use it right away…

  • Today!

    Today is what used to be called Empire Day. To me it’s important because it’s my birthday.  My wish is that I’m forty and am Queen Elizabeth I.  That would mean that the immortal Thomas Tallis would compose his magnificent forty part motet for me as a birthday present.   Champagne and Tallis = paradise.  Happy Birthday to all you other Empire Day babies and many more of them. Ge be!

  • Balls

    I was on a boat the other day and it was raining.  As is often the case nothing much was happening so we got to talking about this and that.  Somehow the question of balls arose. I can’t remember how we got there, maybe one of the chaps was trying to show his credentials as they sometimes do  when there’s only one woman on board, but anyway,  balls it was.  I once wrote a play called Balls, I told them.  It was terrifically successful if you count the number of  men in raincoats sitting at the back.  Indeed it was successful anyway because it ran for three weeks with full houses.  The reason there were  men so attired was nothingto do with the weather.  It was possibly because of the title and also because the reviews mentioned full frontal nudity, as it was called in those days.   Sadly for most of them it was a naked fellow who featured.  The reason I wrote the play, apart from the fact that it was commissioned, was to subvert a few of the gender stereotypes prevalent in those far-off days.  I say in  far-off days but it seems they’re not so distant.  I was in a toy shop the other day, looking for a birthday present for a four year old and was swiftly conducted by the young man running the shop to a wall of  glittering bangles and beads until I mentioned that she’d asked for some more brio rail track. What reminds me of all this is that  The World of Books is similarly limping along in an olden days mind set.  ‘Ditch the sexist book covers’ headlined a short piece in the Daily Telegraph the other day.  Dame Jacqueline Wilson was pointing out that  pink covers are pigeonholing girls and putting off boys.  Even books with gritty themes are made ‘sugary’ with ‘feminine’ covers when written by a woman author.  She’s not alone in this view.  Amanda Hocking also says that serious subjects written by women are too often given ‘girly chicklit’ covers with glib titles when those penned by men are not.  I’m humbly aware of all this myself as my own series was blighted at birth by ridiculous frilly-looking covers.  I wonder why publishers and sales directors do this?  What era are they living in?  It will be interesting to see what difference ebooks will make.  Final question though, how many thousand years will it take to tame the testosterone-effect and civilise the human race?

  • Shakespeare, St George and National Book Day

    What a shame to allow the 23rd April to go by without comment.  I know somebody who can sing the Agincourt Hymn all the way through.  I wish I could.  I simply can’t get that tune into my head.  If you know it give it a go. And an extra one for me.