• A new year!

    I’ve been locked out of my blog for ages but now I’m in let me wish all you fans of Hildegard the best ever year ahead.

    Hildegard and the Abbot are returning home to Meaux after too long away.  The militant monks, Gregory and Egbert, are travelling with them as they take ship from Netley for the pirate infested German Ocean – the one we these days call the North Sea.

    Hubert’s main concern is whether his abbey has been wrecked in his absence but that is not all that awaits.

    I’m about to start Chapter One and greatly looking forward to finding out what happens to them all and I hope you are too.  Will they reach the north safely?  Will Meaux be as well-ordered, safe and tranquil as it was when they left for Avignon?  What is going to happen in the months ahead?  What dangers face them?  And while they are engaged with the challenges that lie ahead, what is happening to King Richard after the cruel fate of his allies during the Merciless Parliament?  Will he be the next victim of the avaricious and relentless enemies of the Crown?  Read Murder at Meaux to find out!

  • Finished!

    It’s been a long haul and I can’t imagine why I thought it would be feasible to write a blog at the same time as writing the actual novel.  Impossible!  Maybe some people can do it, but not this one.  All I can do is quote Stephen King again when he said ‘write with the door shut’ – and to write alongside a blog is to write with the doors wide open and a big sign saying, ‘come on in, folks.’  Not the way to do it.

    The characters followed their own path and Ranulph didn’t end up dead.  In fact he didn’t appear at all.  Others were a surprise. Mistress Sweet and Mistress Sour were unexpected.   Lissa and Simon too.  I’d been reading A Doll’s House when they appeared and after quite a few chapters I realised Delith had crept in under the guise of Norah!

    It’s amazing how characters seep in from elswhere and then become themselves because of the needs of the plot and the story they find themselves in.  Now the pilgrim ship has finally sailed I’m going to miss them.

    All done now. I hope readers will like them.  I’ve had some lovely encouragement recently – when somebody says they stayed up half the night because they wanted to know what heppened next, it makes it all worthwhile.  Thank you for all those lovely comments.  I’ll let you know when The Alchemist of Netley Abbey is ready for the road.

     

  • Strict Rules

    I was in the New Forest archive the other day – not at all dusty as archives are said to be – when I came across a few rules for nuns that would have irked Hildegard more than somewhat.

    It was men who made these rules up, of course, so we have to bear that in mind, and their interests become clear when we see what got them really agitated.

    Clothes.  Rules for how the nuns looked seemed uppermost, so nothing has changed much there then. It was suggested that hair- cloth should be worn next to the skin.  It must have been very itchy. To be fair, St Jerome, among many other sainted men, was said to wear a hair-shirt.  And Becket too, and when he was entombed he was also found to be crawling with lice – but that’s another story.

    The nuns’ garments whether of hair or rough wool, linen of course being forbidden, had to be very well tied, with strapples to the feet, and everything had to be laced tightly. Really tightly.  Well, you can see where that’s heading and I do believe some of them wore grey too, in various shades of…

    They were also forbidden to wear silken veils in any colour but black. Purple was absolutely forbidden.  The men also fulminated against silk girdles and purses (worn, as they were, on a belt slung suggestively low round the hips).   There were also to be no pins in silver or gold whether for the hair or for holding the clothes together.  They were allowed only one ring.

    What was called a peculium was money set aside from the nunnery’s common fund specifically to provide clothes although of course many women who retired to nunneries when their husbands died took their own clothes with them (as well as pet dogs, monkeys, singing birds and so forth, as you do).

    But did the nuns obey these edicts from on high?  Not likely.  The records are full of lists of the nuns’ transgressions despite the many inspections by their male bosses, the bishops, or whoever had the upper hand.  Did these men inspect the hair cloth underwear?  Not much point in making a rule if you can’t enforce it.  Records tell us that a nun called Anneys Bonneville actually wore a fur coat. Scandal.  It was full length.  For the warmth, she said.  Oh yes?  What her punishment was we might imagine but apparently she refused to give it up.

    I found an intriguing note about a priest who bequeathed to Agnes Harvey, a nun and obviously a close friend, his red mantle – a nun in red? – and, suggestively, a tapestry bed cover.  We can maybe imagine to what use these two articles were put when he and Agnes were alive.

    It’s a pleasure to discover that these distant ancestors of ours share the same delights as we do.  Some, like Hildegard, took their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience seriously and wrestled with the morality of breaking them but most people, men and women, were as naughty as they wanted to be. Human, after all.

    An intriguing and beautiful line from the Ancren Riwle is as follows: “They came forth into the nymph-hay with their rocks and wheels to spin.”

    It sounds lovely and there must be a painting somewhere to match such a line.  Any suggestions?

     

  • Looking good at the Castle

    There’s a myth that eveybody in the middle ages ran around looking rough, with uncombed hair, black teeth, bad complexions, and smelling rather bad.  Nothing could be further from the truth if contemporary records are anything to go by.  Beauty tips abound.

    Take hair for instance.  This applies to men and women:  mix dried rose petals, cloves, nutmeg and galangal with rose water and rinse through the hair.  Leave to dry.  Should smell re-e-a-ally good.

    For a smooth, touchable skin melt beeswax, almond oil, rose oil and frankincense in a dish over a flame.  Allow to cool.  Massage into face and body.  It also eases aches and pains after jousting.

    For bright eyes mix one part of wych hazel with four parts water.  Use as eye lotion.  Is said to improve eyesight too so you’ll see those pointed swords coming and it’ll give you an edge down at the butts.

    To lighten dark hair to look like a Florentine blonde soak hair in a bowl of fresh urine.  OK so that does sound wiffy but if you rinse the hair with the rose petal concoction afterwards you should still have plenty of allure.

    Teeth should be brushed using a hazel twig with mashed up fennel and lovage.  And, if you can get it, salt.

    For pleasant breath chew a leaf of mint or parsley.

    To make lips looks red and kissable rub them with beetroot.

    To round off your beauty treatment go to one of the town baths (the stews) and have a bran soak to make your skin  feel like best Cathay silk.

    After all that, don your best poulaines and a clean houplande and go to the feast at your nearest castle where you’ll be the belle or beau of the ball.

     

     

  • A Lead-lined Coffin

    It was Richard II’s birthday at Epiphany but it will also be the anniversary of his murder on St Valentine’s Day.

    He is believed to have been murdered by his ambitious cousin Henry Bolingbroke, one-time Duke of Lancaster, the usurper Henry IV.  King Richard’s body was carried out of Pontefract Castle at night in a wooden coffin.  When it reached London it was displayed before 20,000 people who came to pay their respects – or to see for themselves whether it really was King Richard, ‘the golden boy.’

    For this reason, and to put an end to the hopes of anybody thinking of over-turning Henry IV’s grab for power, his face was open to the public gaze.  It was said to have been serene in death.  And yet, the rest of his body had a lead lining hammered over it.  Was this to conceal the wounds that had been inflicted?  Only by exhuming the body from its tomb in Westminster Abbey where it lies next to his beloved wife Anne of Bohemia will we ever know the truth.

    DNA might also put to rest the rumour that, in fact, it is not King Richard at all, but a look-alike priest called Maskelyne who was murdered earlier.  Richard, the story goes, escaped to Scotland where the king there gave him a small annuity until 1419 when it stopped, presumaably because Richard had then died of natural causes.

    Is this true?

    Can we ever know?

    At least we would know if his DNA matched that of the other Plantagenets.  Or would we?  Maskelyne himself was said to be an illegitimate son of the Black Prince, Richard’s father.

    Mystery on mystery.

    This is why history is so fascinating.  A few answers, though, would help me sleep better at night.

    What do you think the truth is?

  • 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.

    What?!

    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!

  • Clear or Cloudy

    Just heard the fabulous Emma Kirkby singing  ‘Clear or Cloudy’ from Dowland’s Second Book of Songs.  Hildegard would love this.  Bliss! Pity she was born too early (and missed Bach, Handel, Mozart too)