Monday, December 31, 2012

Today's research snippet: Messengers and a tryptych

I'm going to work up a full blog post on medieval messengers when I get a moment, but here are one or two details about them.

Messengers and other servants of the royal household received gifts from time to time, either traditional to their position or because of particular personal service. It was customary for the king and the heads of the lesser royal households to provide New Year presents for all their servants. These gifts usually took the form of clothing, but could include other items. The Black Prince gave one of his messengers some ribbon and an enamelled silver gilt box. Another time messenger John Dagonet was given a grey sumpter horse along with his New year clothing.
Eleanor of Provence had a messenger called Robert Long who was given 'one good robe' for bringing the good news to Henry III that his daughter Katherine had recovered from an illness in 1256.
During Henry III's minority when my Marshal men were still abounding, the court messengers have left their names in the record. Brice Bongarsun (Goodman) for example, Patrick Pluckhenn, Adam son of Pluckhenn, William Nusquam, William Cherl, William le Vilein. Names such as Ramage (Wild) and Carbonel (Firebrand), make one hope they weren't employed on diplomatic missions!

Today's research photo. 
Gorgeous enamelled tryptych 1350-1370 telling the story of Christ's life and featuring saints to whom the owner was attached, especially Saint Edmund. Can be seen in the V&A Museum.
click to enlarge

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Today's Research snippet. Eleanor of Aquitaine and the chalice

Today's research snippet. On medieval wheeler dealering and diplomacy.
The monks of Bury St. Edmunds offered King Richard I, 500 marks in 1190 for the manor of Mildenhall. (he was off on crusade and needed the cash). But Richard was told by his advisors that the manor's annual income was worth more than that and he demanded 1,000 marks. The monks braced themselves and coughed up even the the price was double. Part of the rule of property transactions was that the Queen was entitled to 100 marks on every transaction of 1,000. The monks, offered her instead a gold chalice that had been donated to them by her late husband Henry II. She accepted it, but then immediately gave it back for Henry's soul.
A few years later, strapped for cash when having to raise their part of the contribution to King Richard's ransom, the monks gave the chalice as part of the payment. Eleanor redeemed it with a payment of her own of 100 marks and returned it to the abbey on the proviso that they made a charter to always keep it there. (Having to keep redeeming it back to them meant she was already 200 marks out of pocket, never mind the spiritual implications!).

Taken from Jocelin of Brakelond's Chronicle of the Abbely of Bury St. Edmunds

Today's random research photo:
The tomb effigy face of Richard the Lionheart taken from the Cast Court effigies at the V&A Museum.

click to enlarge 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Today's Research snippet: The Exchequer and a money box

Today's research snippet. This comes from The Course of the Exchequer, a work written in the 2nd half of the 12th century to explain England's financial set up. It takes the form of a dialogue between a master and his student.  I'll be posting other excerpts from this on occasion.

"Scholar: What is the Exchequer?
Master: The exchequer (chess board) is an oblong board measuring about 10 feet by five feet, used as a table by those who sit at it, and with a rim around it about 4 fingerbreadths in height, to prevent anything set on it from falling off. Over the Exchequer is spread a cloth bought at Easter term, of a special pattern, black, ruled with lines a foot, or a full span, apart. In the spaces between them are placed the counters, in their ranks, as will be explained in another place. But though such a board is called 'exchequer' the name is transferred to the court in session at it; so that if a litigant wins his case, or a decision on any point is taken by common consent, it is said to have happened 'at the exchequer' of such a year. But where we now say 'at the exchequer', they used to say 'at the tallies.'
Scholar why is the court so-called?
Master. I can think, for the moment of no better reason than that it resembles a chessboard.
Scholar. Was its shaped the only reason why our wise forefathers gave it that name? For they might equally well have called it a draught board.
Master. I was justified in calling you precise. There is another less obvious reason. For as on the chessboard the men are arranged in ranks, and move or stand by definite rules and restrictions, some pieces in the foremost rank and others in the foremost position; here, too, the barons preside, others assist ex-office; and nobody is free to overstep the appointed laws, as will appear later. Again, just as on a chessboard, battle is joined between the Kings; here too the struggle takes place, and battle is joined, mainly between two persons, to wit, the treasurer and the Sheriff who sits at his account, while the rest sit by as judges to see and decide."

Today's research picture.  A Medieval money box circa 1300 - Museum of London.  You'd have to break the box to get the money out!
click to enlarge

Friday, December 28, 2012

Today's research snippet

On this day in 1204, King John set out from Marlborough Castle to his Palace at Clarendon near Salisbury, a distance of just over 30 miles.  Here are a few details about Marlborough and Clarendon in the reign of King John.

 Taken from Clarendon Palace by T.B. James and A.M. Robinson.
John's reign was characterised not so much by major alterations or modernisation as by maintenance, when required, and minor additions to existing buildings. In 1205 - 6 Clarendon had a new shingle roof for the kitchen. At Marlborough Castle at the same period he had the kitchen fireplace enlarged to such proportions that two oxen could be roasted together. 
During John's reign commodities from Norway found their way to Clarendon including timber and falcons. The timber, probably of coniferous varieties was used in quantity in building works at Woodstock, Marlborough and Ludgershall as well as at Clarendon. Tn were gyrfalcons, which were originally used to hunt herons, but in time were put more general use in the hunt. John had a favourite gyrfalcon called Gibbun.
In 1207 John received part of the English regalia which had been pledged before 1200 to raise money for the ransom of Richard I.
Iin 1210 King John dispensed 15 shillings to 2 huntsmen who had killed a wolf in Clarendon Forest and to others in the forest of Gillingham in Dorset.

Today's research photo.  Gilded silver chalice dating somewhere between 1200 and 1300.  Used in the mass to contain the wine that became the blood of Christ, these vessels were made of the most precious materials.
click to enlarge

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Every day on my Facebook page I post a research snippet.  These are eclectic and wide-ranging, and my Facebook readers find them fun and informative.  So I thought that being as my blog posts tend to be at least a month apart, I might as well use the space in between to post my daily research snippets here too, because I know not everyone uses Facebook. The other thing I do at Facebook is post a daily research photo from my archives, so I’ll add one to the blog too.
I might as well use some of the earlier research photos to make a start, and then move on from there.

So: Today's research snippet from Facebook was this, taken from the book Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval Europe by Compton Reeves published in the UK by Sutton.

"Dancing at the amateur level was ordinarily round dancing or processional, and was of ancient lineage. Carols (corae in Latin) were the principal form of secular music in medieval England, and they are the musical core of the entertaining chain or carol-dance. The carol dance was usually performed by a circle of dancers, with hands clasped or arms linked, who would take a few steps to the left as their leader, normally standing in the middle of the circle, sang a stanza of a song. The dancers then marked time with treading steps as all sang the chorus (or burden). This basic dance could be varied in many ways, from dancing in line to mining the story of the carol, and the carols might be stories about heroism, romance, or religion. For the most part, carols seem to have been joyful. Carolling could be done outdoors, and the churchyard was a favourite venue, or in doors in a lordly Hall. Churchmen repeatedly repudiated carols and lascivious songs that were being enjoyed in churchyards when minds and hearts ought to have been inclined more spiritual matters. Carols prompted confessors to impose penances the sins of voice, sins of movement, and sins of touching."

And for today's photo, let's have one of a rather gorgeous decorated medieval shoe that can be seen in the Museum of London.  There's no strict dateline for this one, but presumed late 1300's. After all, you'd need your dancing shoes!                             

click to enlarge

Sunday, December 16, 2012


One of my own Christmas decoration arrangements.
In the UK during the month of December, dawn arrives at around 8 AM, and the sun sets just before 4 PM, giving us around 8 hours of daylight out of 24.  If the weather is murky, those 8 hours can easily become swallowed in twilit gloom. Sitting in my study, drinking my mid morning coffee with the electric light still on, I wondered about the kind of lighting mediaeval people had at their disposal.  800 years ago, how would I have coped?
Since all cooking and heating relied on fires, ambient firelight would have provided a certain amount of light, but with very dim parameters and not always useful. One of the reasons that meals were eaten early in the day in the middle ages was that trying to perform tasks in a kitchen without clear light was a hazard. Certainly in a castle kitchen there might be fires for heating water and cooking food, but the fire was at ground level and any preparation would have to be done on tables which would be cast into shadow, so in itself firelight, while providing warmth and cheer was only of background usefulness.  Actually for kitchen work in dark circumstances, the most often used lighting appears to have been something called a cresset. This was a series of hollows in a stone block.
cresset lamp

The hollows would be filled with oil or fat and a wick floated in them. The lamps would be placed on a flat surfaces or in a niche.  There are frequent references to cresset lamps as items of kitchen equipment. Candles and candlesticks seem not to have been as popular in a kitchen environment but to have been used elsewhere.
Bartholomew the Englishman was of the opinion that there should be plenty of light from candles, prickets and torches when people were eating "for it is a schame to soupe in derknes and perilous also for flies and other filth."  I am reminded of my father in law on active service in North Africa in 1942. He said he always waited until after dark to eat his rations because then he wouldn't see the weevils!
For the peasant household and the less well off, lighting was provided by tallow candles and by rush lights. These were frequently home made in the summer months by carefully peeling the long, cylindrical pith of the juncus rush, and dragging it through molten animal fat. These however, burned down quickly and could not be used for any length of time. They were better than nothing, but not ideal. People made use of local resources, and some communities living near the sea would make lamps out of a fish called a thornback. The fish were stuffed full of linen waste, and pressed until the wick was saturated, and then actually burnt as a candle. Two or three tied together in an iron holder made a torch!  The phosphorescent light cast by rotting fist was sometimes used to light the way up the garden path.

Thornback fish lamp

                The aristocracy and the church opted for candles made from beeswax. These gave a clear burning light and a pleasant smell, and were long-lasting. Although beeswax was locally available, there was never enough to satisfy demand in the big cities, and supplies were augmented from the forested less sparsely populated areas of Europe such as Russia, Hungary and Bohemia. People in Royal service were entitled to candles (or remnants of them) as one of the perks of their job. So if John Marshal, my hero of A Place Beyond Courage was eating outside of the court he was entitled to a daily provision of one small wax candle and 24 candle ends. (Royalty only burned fresh candles, and whatever stubs remained at the end of each day were cleared away and finished off in the departments of the household officials).  If John was working in-house on a particular day he was entitled to an ample supply of candles all the time. John's ushers were entitled to 8 candle ends a day for their own use. Candles could be placed in candlesticks, wall mounted holders,  ceiling suspended holders, or arranged on large multi-holder candle stands – whatever suited the purpose.
Candle holder that could be used either free standing
or on a wall bracket.  Museum of London

Candle stick fit for a queen - 12th century.  V&A

Ceramic lamps were another form of lighting. These look a bit like ice cream cones and are ubiquitous in mediaeval illustrations. There are frequently found in museum exhibits.  Basically they worked on the same principle as the cresset lamp and were often suspended by chains from the ceiling.  There are references in the Pipe rolls to the use of oil in lamps.  Queen Alienor ad 30 shillings and 5pence worth of oil bought on the Surrey account for use in her lamps in 1176/1177   ‘Et pro oleo ad lampadem regine .xxxs. et v.d.’   In 1159 that sum was greater but only by 2 pence.    The second sum appears time and again throughout the reigns of Richard and of John while she was still living.  Were they for religious or personal use?  The Pipe rolls don’t say.
Hanging lamp from the Maciejowski Bible mid 13thc

Norman ceramic oil lamp: Museum of London

When one needed to carry a light about, lanterns proved useful and there are many surviving examples in the archaeological and illustrative record. 
Ceramic Lantern from the Poitou region
Lantern held aloft: Maciejowski Bible mid 13thC

Torches were also used but we don’t know a great deal about them as they have not survived well in the archaeological record and it’s an area that still requires more study.  There’s an interesting article on lighting here, which talks a little bit about torches and has more information about lighting in general.
During the broad spread of the Middle Ages and in various circumstances, there were rules about lighting,  George Duke of Clarence's household ordinances for December 1468 give the detail that wood and candles should only be issued between 1st November and Good Friday, at the rate of two shides (unit of measure of which I don't know the equivalence) and three white tallow lights to be shared between every 2 gentlemen of the household.  At the monastery of Barnwell, the monks were forbidden to sit by a lamp in the dormitory to read, or to take candles to bed in order to do the same.  We might think it was because of the fire hazard, but no, it was because reading in bed was discourages as at that time, reading aloud was the norm and would have kept everyone else awake, not to mention the light!

So basically it wasn’t a world without light, but it was certainly one more deeply shadowed, more golden, more smokily scented (among other smells!) than ours. It couldn’t be had for the flick of a switch, but provision of light had to be thought about and toiled over.  What you never have, you never miss, but a thousand years ago, the return of daylight as the Northern hemisphere turned towards Spring, must have come as a truly keen pleasure of life.

Cooking and Dining in Medieval England by  Peter Brears Prospect Books 2008 - chapter on kitchen lighting

Food in England by Dorothy Hartley published by LittleBrown  (for the fish light examples!)

The senses in Late Medieval England by C. M. Woolgar - Yale University Press

The Museum of London website

Friday, November 16, 2012


Fork Off!
(Dedicated to my father in law William Hicks 'Bill'  1922-2011, who always used a knife and spoon to eat his meals and thought forks were an affectation!)

The first mention of fork use in the Middle Ages dates to the 11th century when a Greek princess called Theodora was sent to Venice to marry the Doge Domenico Selvo. Among the artefacts she brought with her was a fork which she used to eat meals. A disapproving chronicler tells us:  ‘She did not touch the food with her hands but had each dish cut into tiny pieces by her eunuchs, which she then advanced to her mouth using a sort of miniature golden spear with two prongs, and barely tasted.’ The Princess later died of a wasting disease and ecclesiast San Pier Damiani (1007-1072) thought this a just punishment for such a sin.
You will note the mention is of two prongs - forks looked more like mini pitchforks in the mediaeval period and thus had associations with the devil. Having said that, forks with more prongs are known according to Bee Wilson in her book on the history of culinary gadgetry “Consider the Fork” although she doesn't elaborate on her source, which would have been useful.
A century after Theodora's castigation, Pope Innocent III railed against people who set out elaborate tables when they dined. He accused them of vanity for adorning their tables with ‘decorated tablecloths, knives with  handles of ivory, golden drinking vessels, silver platters, with cups and beakers, bowls and basins, with soup plates and spoons, with forks and salt shakers etc. Basically he said what was the point.  You couldn't take any of it with you when you died and it wasn't going to promote your path to heaven.
The earliest appearance of the Fork in iconography can be dated to the Code Of Lombardic Law at the beginning of the 11th century which shows a couple of men eating at a table using knives and forks, although said forks look nothing like our modern notion.
Forks from Iran 8th/9thC.  Items like this slowly made their way into
Europe as eating utensils

The advancement of the Fork from Byzantium into Europe seems to have begun in Italy where it was discovered to be useful in the eating of  pasta. However elsewhere in Europe it had still to catch on. In 16th century France, satirist Thomas Artus, published a book called L’Isle des Hermaphrodites, which made fun of the effeminate ways of the court of King Henry IV of France. At that time, a hermaphrodite was an abusive term you might apply to anyone you didn't like. Artus, when mocking the courtiers says that ‘they never touch meat with their hands but with forks, whose prongs was so wide apart that the hermaphrodites spilled more broad beans and peas and they picked up, scattering them everywhere. They would rather touch their mouths with their little forked instruments than with their fingers.’
The ancestor of the modern fork was known in Europe from early times.  The Romans used prong-like instruments to winkle molluscs out of their shells, and to spear food.  The later medievals and Tudors used 'sucket' forks for eating sweetmeats that were preserved in syrup. Some early forks had a prong at one end for spearing the sweetmeat and a spoon at the other for dealing with the syrup. The fork ends of the sucket could also be used as a toothpick.  As aforementioned, the Italians began using forks to deal with their pasta, but by 1608, Elizabethan traveller Thomas Coryate noted that they were using them to hold their meat steady while they cut it up. When he returned to England, he continued using a fork himself to the great merriment of his friends who called him a 'furcifer' which means both 'fork-holder' and 'rascal.'  Elizabeth 1 owned sweetmeat forks but preferred to use her fingers, considering that forks were vulgar.
See end of article for link

From the 17th century onwards, the fork gradually advanced as an eating tool, but even as the fashion grew, there was still a notion that they weren't for 'real men' and a bit suspect. By the 18thC  forks had become mostly respectable.
One of the reasons for the triumph of the fork was the introduction of china dinner plates.  When everyone had eaten out of wooden bowls, then a knife, spoon and the fingers were perfect for the job.  Try eating your dinner in a wooden bowl using a knife and fork - doesn't work very well.  But transfer to a plate and voila!
The way of using a knife and fork in tandem has come down to us from the 19thC.  Originally the fork was used to keep morsels of food stable while they were cut up.  Then the knife was laid down and the morsels conveyed to the mouth with the fork.  Another method developed from this whereby the knife and fork were held in the hand all the time.  Not only was the fork used as a stabiliser when cutting, it was also used so that the knife pushed the food onto the fork. In this method, knife and fork are used in tandem throughout the meal, and that's about where we are today - complete with our smaller jaws, apparently a partial product of the way we now use our cutlery!

For more information see

Consider the Fork: A History of Invention in the Kitchen by Bee Wilson

Books  Banks, Buttons  by Chiara Frugoni

Saturday, October 20, 2012


  May 9th 1998 - October 20th 2012

Many of you will know about my three dogs - Taz, Jack and Pip.  I have occasionally posted photographs on blogs and Facebook, and some readers will have met 'the boys' at talks I have come to give around the UK.

 Today's post is especially to remember and celebrate Taz.

He was a rescue puppy.  His mother had an irresponsible owner who had not bothered to spay her, and would let her out when on season.  She was 10 years old when she gave birth to Taz and a brother and sister.  At that point, she was taken into the care of a charity.
We were looking for a pup for my dog-mad 12 year old son and were put in touch with the charity.  My son chose Taz from the litter and at 7 weeks old, he joined our family.  My son was also a huge fan of the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character at the time, hence the name.  It was good from out point of view because it was short and strong and an excellent training name.
Taz (right) and his brother as puppies features in our local newspaper
and held by the kennel manager where they were being housed.

Taz the tiny (just visible) puppy, already being introduced to the allotment!
Taz did indeed prove very easy to train.  We didn't know his ancestry, but he obviously had a lot of collie in him.  At different times we also suspected corgie and spaniel, but who knows?  He was bright and intelligent.  By the time he was a mature dog, I could order him to stay outside a shop and he would do so, come hell or high water.  He quickly learned to stop at kerbs and wait.   We never taught him 'Sit' even though he knew 'Stay.'  As my husband said, 'How would you like to sit down on a cold wet pavement?'
Taz as a handsome young dog

As above.  About one and a half

He loved his walks and despite his short legs could go for miles and miles.  He would chase rabbits and squirrels.  A few he caught, most escaped to live another day.  He was an expert ratter, and mouser.  There was the embarrassing time he caught a pheasant on our walk, having veered off the path and onto a private game reserve.  Then trotted all the way home behind us with his contraband booty in his mouth.
He wasn't a knee sitter at home, but out and about was a different matter and he would enjoy plonking himself down in your lap while he gazed round at the world.  Wherever we were, he was always close, always attentive.
On the steam railway train to Whitby

One dog and his man
He wasn't that keen on playing fetch with a ball, but loved to catch one in his mouth and throw it back to you with a little twist of his jaw.  Among other simple pleasures he loved a good swim in the local pond, and was always game for a paddle.
Settrington Yorkshire during research for To Defy A King

A wet car in prospect!
However he HATED being give a bath (just look at the colour of that water!).

 He adored the snow and the moment any fell he would be out in it making doggy snow angels.

 One of his most favourite occupations was riding in the car.  He especially loved it at night, where he would watch the lights like a child watching the illuminations.  Even in his last days when he was too poorly to go for walks, he still liked a trip in the car and some of his old spark would return.  Taz had a weakness for soft toys and always had a favourite one that would be chewed, sucked and carried round until it fell to pieces.  We always knew when it was bed-time because Taz would trot past us, his teddy in his mouth, run up the stairs and climb into the built in wardrobe where he slept.  Never in the bed; always in the wardrobe.  He stored his marrow bones in there too.
Taz was equable about sharing his humans.  He got on with our cats when we had them.  There was the occasional spat, but it was all mouth and no trousers.  Later, when he was an elderly gent, but still with all his faculties, he weathered the arrival of two spirited Patterjack pups with aplomb.  They might have seemed as if they were running rings around him, but he was always in charge, even to his final days and always led the pack out on walks.

In later years, medication for an enlarged heart kept the problem well controlled.  A benign tumour that could have turned nasty was dealt with by an operation and he went on for another three years until the increasing problems of old age finally overtook him.  He started refusing food and his quality of life diminished to grim existence, so we took the hardest decision any pet owner has to face.
Taz was our first dog and a deeply loved, very special family member. We had the joy and privilege of knowing him for more than 14 years and there is a place in our hearts that will always be filled with his presence, and empty without it.
Farewell but not goodbye forever, our lovely Taz.
A blissful doggy moment.

A few more photos of Taz going about the business of living a full and rich doggy life.

On the train to Whitby

Waiting for instructions on his walk

Enjoying the Cleveland Way

As above

An Ear Tussle (Ludlow)

Any rabbits in here?

Trying to sleep in the cat basket

Seeking prey on the disused railway line

A summer day walk

a dip in the river

Wet dog after a dip in the river!

Alert at Castle Acre Priory

Inspecting the well at Castle Acre Castle

More well inspection

On a beach somewhere in Norfolk

Exploring castle walls last year

Photo taken this spring and still full of bounce.

Taz enjoys a roll in the sand on the riverbank