Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Emanuel Swedenborg and William Blake by Miranda Miller

    For years I’ve passed Swedenborg House in central London but haven’t dared to go in. The reason for my curiosity is because ever since adolescence I’ve loved the paintings, illustrated books and poetry of William Blake, who was influenced by Swedenborg’s ideas.

   So I was very pleased to be invited to a book launch in the Magic Lantern Room there by my friend Sally Kindberg a few weeks ago. Swedenborgianism bases its teachings on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, who was born in Stockholm 1688. He was a polymath who had a brilliant career as a theologian , scientist,  inventor, philosopher  and mystic.

   Here’s a drawing from his notebook (in 1714) of a flying machine. The pilot was supposed to sit in the middle and use paddles on the wing, like oars on a boat, to propel himself through the air. Swedenborg commented, “ The art of flying is hardly yet born. It will be perfected and some day people will fly up to the moon.” He studied anatomy  and physiology  and anticipated the neutron concept. He also believed that slavery should be abolished, observing that the inhabitants of the interior of Africa had preserved a direct intuition of God. As a result the first abolitionist society was founded by Swedenborgians in Sweden in 1779.

   When he was in his late fifties and living in London he had a vision of Christ,  who told him that he had been chosen to interpret the Scriptures and reform Christianity; he was to be given freedom to roam in the spirit world. He spent the remaining 28 years of his life writing about his adventures there and his conversations with angels, demons and spirits from, amongst other places,  Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Venus and the Moon.  His best known books are Heaven and Hell and The Heavenly Doctrine, in which he claims that the teachings of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ have been revealed to him. Swedenborg has been described, intriguingly, as a “secret agent on earth and in heaven.” Swedenborg called his movement The New Jerusalem Church but it only became an  institution after his death. Blake commented, “It is so with Swedenborg; he shews the folly of churches & exposes hypocrites”

   Swedenborg died in London in 1772 – apparently on the precise day he had predicted. He had, and still has, many followers. It has been suggested that his ideas influenced Joseph Smith, the founder on Mormonism. Writers who were interested in his ideas include Conan Doyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Immanuel Kant, Balzac, Helen Keller, August Strindberg, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman and W. B. Yeats. Jorge Luis Borges called him “the most extraordinary man in recorded history.“ His unorthodox beliefs were a magnet for dissentors and intellectuals interested in radical politics which, in the late eighteenth century, were often linked to mysticism.

   William Blake is seen here in a portrait by Thomas Philips. In the bookshop on the ground floor of Swedenborg House books by and about Blake are prominently displayed. Alexander Gilchrist, Blake’s first biographer, wrote that “of all modern men, the engraver’s apprentice was to grow up likest to Emanuel Swedenborg.” Some scholars think that Blake came from a family of Swedenborgians and the Irish poet William Allingham imagined the fourteen-year-old Blake meeting the eighty-four-year-old Swedenborg on the streets of London.

   We know that Blake owned and annotated at least three of Swedenborg’s books and he mentions two others in such a way as to suggest that he read them. He and his wife Catherine attended the first General Conference of the New Jerusalem Church in 1789. Blake would have sympathised with the Conference’s endorsement of Swedenborg’s statement that the things seen by the visionary “are not fictions but were really seen and heard in a state in which I was broad awake.”  Like Blake, Swedenborgians had to defend themselves against charges of “enthusiasm” and madness. The Church that Blake visited was a development of the non-orthodox Theosophical Society which was established in 1783 by a printer with a Methodist background, Robert Hindmarsh. We know that a number of Blake’s friends and fellow artists were Swedenborgians and met in the Theosophical Society (in 1785 renamed as The British Society for the Propagation of the Doctrines of the New Church).

   In Blake’s epic poem Jerusalem he speaks of a “Jerusalem in every individual man, ” a very Swedenborgian idea. Both men had unconventional ideas about marriage and sexuality. In Visions of the Daughters of Albion Blake describes sexual violence, linking sexual liberation with human freedom. Oothoon rages at her lover Theotormon for his “hypocrite modesty.” She describes herself as “A virgin fill’d with virgin fancies”; in accordance with the ideal of the virtuous woman at the time, she is not allowed to express her true sexual desires. In a paradise on the coast of Africa similar to the one described by Swedenborg in his Plan, Oothoon describes a utopian future time of free love, when “Love! Love! Love! happy happy Love!” can be “Free as the mountain wind”

   Many Swedenborgians shared another of Blake’s deepest concerns: opposition to slavery. In his long poem America Blake’s revolutionary spirit, Orc, is referred to as “the Image of God who dwells in the darkness of Africa.

    Later Blake seems to have turnied sharply against the Swedenborgians and satirized them in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93). “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” Blake began to mistrust the church's emphasis on the avoidance of sin and eventually accused Swedenborg of “Lies and priestcraft” while the New Jerusalem Church split into factions. Swedenborg's greatest error, according to Blake, lay in his failure to understand the real nature of evil.

   Blake saw Heaven and Hell not as real locations but as representations of the human heart. For him, angels represented conservative values whereas devils were rebels; Blake saw himself as a revolutionary devil and also used the concepts of Heaven and Hell in his own polemic against the materialistic philosophies of Locke, Bacon and Newton.

   Blake’s private mythology, which make many of his beautiful poems hard to follow, was certainly influenced by Swedenburg’s writings and I find this a helpful approach.

Monday, 24 June 2019


Chepstow Castle from my hotel window.
Last week I was in Chepstow to give a talk on my specialist subject, the life of the great Medieval knight, magnate and regent, William Marshal.
Since it was an evening talk and I live three hours' away by train, I stayed overnight.  The organisers arranged for me to stay in The Woodfield Arms Hotel (formerly The Castle View) directly facing Chepstow Castle.

Arriving in my room which had all the facilities of an en suite a lovely comfortable bed, and indeed a view of the castle, I noticed a large, closed, dark-red striped curtain half way up the wall at the side of the bed, and underneath it, a photo frame with some information.  My photo is too small for the information to be read clearly, but it's about Piercefield House a Neo-Classical country house, now a ruin. Here's the Wikipedia article. Piercefield House   Why the information is there in the photo frame is because the curtains hide from the light, a fading but magnificent wall mural of Piercefield House painted in its Queen Anne heyday, and there for guests staying in this room to view.

What a fantastic bonus moment on my historical travels of otherwise medieval datelines!
information plaque

Behind the red curtains = Piercefield House mural



Sunday, 23 June 2019

A Victorian Scandal: The Peer and the Dancer by Judith Allnatt

In 1851, the Spanish dancer Josefa Duran, known as ‘Pepita’ caught the eye of Lionel Sackville-West, a member of the British aristocracy (2nd Baron Sackville). She was slim and beautiful and was known for the airiness of her dancing, for her luxuriant, waist-length dark hair and for the kiss curls she wore on each cheek. She had what we would now call ‘celebrity status’ and young men were said to have plucked flowers from their own wives’ hair to cast them at her feet on the stage. 

Born in a Málaga slum to a barber father and a clothes-seller mother, Pepita’s background couldn’t be further from that of Lionel’s family, who owned Knole, one of the largest and most important of Britain’s Great Country Houses. They met a week or so after Lionel had seen her at the theatre; Lionel visited and they soon became ‘intimate’. A further obstacle to the lovers, beyond the chasm between their social classes, was that Pepita had in fact married another dancer, Juan Antonio de Oliva, only the previous year. They had separated swiftly in circumstances that Oliva maintained were ‘not honourable’ to Pepita and she had left Spain to tour abroad.
The Cartoon Gallery, Knole
Their relationship was intermittent in nature. As first attaché in Berlin, Lionel was able to visit Pepita in the cities and towns in which she was dancing but there were inevitably spells when they were apart. Pepita was certainly no angel; she appears to have had other liaisons with Prince Youssoupoff in Munich and Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria. After Lionel and Pepita’s daughter Victoria was born, they separated for two years but Lionel returned to her after hearing that she was desperately ill. She had lost a baby and refused to say who the father was, but nonetheless they were reconciled.

In 1866, having given up dancing, Pepita had luxurious clothes, beautiful jewels and a house bought for her by Lionel in the French coastal town of Arcachon. Nonetheless, she was isolated by her situation. Unaccepted by society because she and Lionel were not married, she was unable to mix socially in Lionel’s circle. When they stayed in Paris, Pepita was reduced to tears because she was unable to go with Lionel to a fete in the Tuileries that he was visiting. His colleagues at the Foreign Office knew nothing of his liaison or the fact that he had children. He had never mentioned that part of his life. Now at Arcachon, her children were short of playmates as the children in the neighbouring villa had been told by their parents not to play with them. When entertaining, it was reported that no ‘ladies’ ever attended, that her guests were young men and that she drank. 

At Arcachon, the house was named ‘Villa Pepa’: a name that may show Pepita’s egocentricity or may reflect a sense of defiance at her exclusion and the desire to make a world separate from the stresses of the ‘society’ around her. The desire to create another ‘world’, is perhaps echoed later in the haven from the public sphere made by her grand daughter Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Sir Harold Nicolson, in their gardens at Sissinghurst.

What was the truth about Lionel and Pepita’s relationship? Were they ever married? It became important decades later because of question over who should inherit Knole. For years Lionel was steadfast in putting up objections to signing the register of his children’s births. Later, when pressed to do so by Pepita for the sake of her reputation, he signed for two of his children but later claimed that he had no memory of doing so. One of these was Pepita’s youngest living child – Henry – who was later to feel therefore that he had a claim to be Lionel’s true heir.

In Arcachon society there was gossip that her children had several different fathers including the Prince of Bavaria and Count Henri de Béon, alongside Lionel. One can see how these rumours might arise as Pepita appointed Henri de Béon as her superintendant at the villa and gave him a bedroom next to hers. Lionel seemed to know about Béon living there but didn’t send him packing. Whether this was because he held no suspicions or because he was extremely tolerant of his mistress’s amours is not clear.

At forty, Pepita gave birth to another son, Frederic, but both mother and baby survived only a few days. According to Vita’s account in her book ‘Pepita’, Lionel broke down at seeing Pepita and the baby laid out together. He blamed himself for her death, sobbing that he had killed her, presumably because he had fathered the child when Pepita was an older mother. As if fuelled by guilt, from that point on Lionel seemed to refer freely and publicly to Pepita as his wife; she is named as such in the funeral invitations, letters and in the notices in the local paper. Ironically, only in death did Pepita receive the acknowledgement of their relationship that she had craved through their many years together. She was buried, as Lionel’s wife, in the municipal cemetery above the town. Béon and his mother took care of the five children, supported financially by Lionel, who referred to him at the time as a ‘dear friend’.

The consequences of Lionel and Pepita’s unconventional liaison rumbled on decades after Pepita’s death. Lionel’s nephew (confusingly another Lionel) had inherited Knole in the absence of a ‘legitimate’ son. Henry brought a case that sought to prove that Pepita had been secretly married to Lionel, that he, Henry, had been registered as Lionel’s child and that he was therefore the male heir. The scandal caught the public imagination to the extent that a drama was shown, catchily named ‘The Marriages of Mayfair’ that was a thinly veiled reference to the Sackville-West affair. For Henry and the court case however, it was impossible to cast doubt on the legality of Pepita’s marriage to De Oliva, that had in fact continued throughout Pepita and Lionel’s affair. Henry lost the case and Knole continued in the hands of the accepted line of Sackville-Wests.

To find out more about the Sackville-Wests:  'The Disinherited' by Robert Sackville-West
 'Vita - the Life of Vita Sackville -West' by Victoria Glendinning

 Visit Knowle (National Trust)
 Visit beautiful Sissinghurst (National Trust)

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Wedding Lintels & Marriage Customs by Catherine Hokin

 Marriage Lintel from 1610, Falkland
I have developed a couple of new obsessions since moving to Scotland six years ago, not all of which revolve around whisky. Moody looking castles are up there, as is the tooth-destroying confectionery known as Tablet, but the one currently leading the pack is hunting for marriage lintels.

A marriage lintel (also known as nuptial, marriage or lintel stone) is a carved inscription above the doorway of a house owned by a newly-married couple. They are a feature of the east coast of Scotland and date primarily from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries - the one pictured from 1610 is one of the best examples and commemorates the marriage of Nicol Moncrief, a servant of James VI. All feature the year of the wedding and the couple's initials and some also include pictorial details - there is a particularly lovely one on what is now known as the John Knox House on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, commemorating the marriage of goldsmith John Mossman to Mariotta Arries.

 Stone from 1801
The lintels serve as a record of a marriage and the joining together of two families, who were often aristocratic or monied. Lintels could be added to a building which was built specifically for the married couple, or were carved into a pre-existing lintel. They were always set over the main entrance and some also appear inside houses, above the most visible fireplace. Wherever they were placed, they were meant to be seen: perhaps we should think of them as an early form of social media - Mr and Mrs Smug-Married boasting about their updated status and their swanky new home. 

There is, unfortunately, little information about the lintel stones beyond what they symbolise - or little I can find. There's no list of the surviving stones (although Wikipedia cites some examples if you want to go hunting) and, as you can see in the third photo, many have become detached from their original position. 

The custom of marriage lintels had died out by the end of the nineteenth century, as have some of the other traditional Scottish practices. Grooms are no longer expected to carry a creel (a large basket) filled with stones around the village until their bride releases them from their burden with a kiss. Brides might still find themselves standing to the groom's left but hopefully no one is still doing it because the 
bride is the ‘warrior’s prize’ who the groom needs to hold with his left hand so he can fend off her family and other foes with his right. Similarly presenting swords from one family to the other as a sign of extended protection and acceptance isn't regarded as quite so crucial anymore.

 A quaich
Some customs do, however, continue. Although grooms aren't necessarily required to bring 'siller' (silver coins) to the ceremony anymore, a traditional wedding will still involve a scramble - throwing coins in the air for the children to collect. Wedding walks still take place, where the wedding party walk to the church preceded by a fiddler. Whether they have to turn around and start again if they meet a pig or a funeral as the rules once dictated is presumably a matter of choice these days, or very bad luck. Many couples still use a quaich, a two-handled 'loving cup' for the first toast to symbolise the joining of their lives. This tradition stems, as many of these practices do, from clan customs: the quaich was once used by two clans to celebrate a bond between them, with each leader sharing the whisky it contained. In a similar vein to sharing the quaich, some couples will still 'pin the tartan' - swapping rosettes to show that both husband and wife are accepted by the other's families. For anyone wanting to delve further, there are some excellent oral histories here, including blackening, the breaking of the bride-cake and betrothal customs. 

 The Goddess Juno
Where Scots have broken with custom is the wedding date. Traditionally the most popular auspicious month to marry was June - this was partly because the goddess Juno (for whom June is named) was the protector of women, particularly in marriage and childbearing. On a more practical note, others chose June in order to time conception so that births wouldn’t interfere with harvest work. Last year, however, the most popular month in Scotland was September - no doubt because this is the one month of the year when the weather is at its most predictable. A Scottish June bride needs a dress that co-ordinates with wellies, an umbrella and, this year at least, a winter coat! 

If you and yours are struggling to choose the right month for an upcoming ceremony, perhaps this poem might help. The message about May does seem rather clear...

Married when the year is new, he’ll be loving, kind and true.

When February birds do mate, you wed not dread your fate.

If you wed when March winds blow, joy and sorrow both you’ll know.

Marry in April when you can, joy for Maiden and for Man.

Marry in the month of May, and you’ll surely rue the day.

Marry when June roses grow, over land and sea you’ll go.

Those who in July do wed, must labour for their daily bread.

Whoever wed in August be, many a change is sure to see.

Marry in September’s shrine, your living will be rich and fine.

If in October you do marry, love will come but riches tarry.

If you wed in bleak November, only joys will come, remember.

When December snows fall fast, marry and true love will last.


Which ever you go with, have the happiest day and, in the words of this Scottish blessing: May your blessings outnumber the thistles that grow and may troubles avoid you wherever you go. Now let's see if you can still recite that when the bills come in... 

Friday, 21 June 2019

Ancient 'Girl Power' by Elisabeth Storrs

The Vestal Virgins of Rome are famous. These six priestesses were entrusted with keeping alight the eternal flame of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. The College of Vestals wielded great influence in matters of state but they were cloistered from society and denied the opportunity to marry and bear children until after they had served the order for thirty years. Apart from the Vestal Virgins, Roman women did not preside over religious ceremonies nor did they hold high office.

Roman vestal virgin and Etruscan priestess (or goddess Turan)

Historians contend that an Etruscan woman could hold the title of a high priestess called an ‘hatrencu’. It is believed such priestesses belonged to a sacred college devoted to a female cult dedicated to the fertility of families and marriage. Unlike the Vestals, however, they joined such an order as matrons rather than maidens sworn to an oath of chastity. This collegial link has been persuasively argued due to the findings within the Tomb of Inscriptions at the Etruscan city of Vulci.  There members of several families were buried within its six chambers. Extraordinarily, two of the ladies were not laid to rest beside their husbands and children which was usually the rule in Etruria for female burials in family tombs. Instead they lay in the company of women with different family names but bearing the same title of ‘hatrencu’.

Etruscan jewellery and noblewoman
The attire of a Vestal Virgin was unique. She wore distinctive robes, woollen headbands and a veil, and her hair was specially dressed in six braids. Votive statuettes have been found of Etruscan women wearing a peculiar garb believed to characterise those of a priestess as well. This consisted of a sleeved tunic reaching to her ankle boots. A heavy mantle with a tasselled triangular end hung over her back. Often her shawl-like cloak was pinned at the shoulder with a large brooch similar to those worn by male Etruscan soothsayers, and her hair was covered by a clinging veil placed low across the forehead and tied by a ribbon knotted at the back of her head.

In 1861 the German historian Bachofen propounded a theory that Etruscan society was a matriarchy where identity passed through the female line. His theories were extensively discussed in feminist circles in the 1970s with research undertaken into the cult of the great mother goddess. Indeed, the first deities to be mentioned in Etruscan inscriptions are Turan, the goddess of love and fertility, (better known as Venus or Aphrodite) together with Aritimi (Artemis) who was associated in Etruria with the Mistress of Animals, a goddess also worshipped in the Near East.

In support of his claim, Bachofen examined the legend of Tanaquil, a talented prophetess who became the queen of the first Etruscan king of Rome. She exercised tremendous influence and gave real meaning to the saying: ‘the power behind the throne.’ There was also support for his theory due to the existence of many lavish tombs dedicated to women with inscriptions acknowledging both male and female bloodlines. Compare this to a Roman woman who only bore her father’s name in feminine form, and who was not generally commemorated after death.

Ramtha Visnai & Arnth Tetnies
Present-day historians have discounted Bachofen’s theory because there are no inscriptions denoting Etruscan women as a monarch or chief magistrate. Nor is a man ever described as the ‘husband of’ a woman which would suggest the wife held a dominant role. However there was no separation between church and state in Etruscan society. Those who governed also fulfilled a religious role as a priest. Given this, the fact Etruscan women could be priestesses establishes the eminent role they played in that world. Accordingly, there may well be seeds of truth in the legend of Queen Tanaquil who was honoured as both a seer and an advisor to her royal husband. Indeed, the extensive treasure found in graves of Etruscan women points to the conclusion that the wives and daughters of the prominent elite were viewed as ‘princesses’.

One particular sarcophagus confirms the high rank held by women in Etruria. On its lid, an elderly man and woman lie beneath a mantle. Their intimate embrace not only portrays their devotion but also symbolises how the power of their union can ward off evil after death. Although the casket portrays both husband and wife, it only holds the body of the woman. She is simply described as Ramtha Visnai, wife of Arnth Tetnies.

On one side of the sarcophagus is carved a scene of a procession believed to portray the journey of the couple to the afterlife. Attendants walk behind both husband and wife. Arnth’s carry symbols of his magistracy – a horn, ivory chair and rod; Ramtha’s servants carry libation vessels for mixing wine and water. These symbols are associated with priestesses who served the Etruscan wine god Fufluns (Greek Dionysus). The couple are depicted holding hands. Here is a coffin celebrating the life of a loving wife whose rank was as respected as her husband’s. And the scene also bears witness to Ramtha’s desire to meet her spouse as an equal after death. 

Procession to afterlife on Ramtha Visnai's casket

Perhaps the most impressive evidence of the respect afforded to Etruscan women is the fact they were worshipped as part of an ancestor cult. Seated on thrones, statues of both male and female heads of clans stand guard over those who have been entombed. These images give testament to the understanding that the soul of the deceased could turn into a deity who returned to watch over the living. In effect, a high ranked matron of a clan was not only a princess but also a goddess – an ultimate display of feminine power.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga, and the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Learn more at www.elisabethstorrs.com
Images courtesy of Google Arts & Culture, Wikimedia, Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard Art Museums

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Mediaeval food, feast and famine by Carolyn Hughes

In my novels of 14th century England, like many other writers, I try to include a good deal of description of medieval daily life. Clothing, housing, furniture and furnishings, artefacts and tools, working practices, medical practices and, of course, food, can all help to place characters in context, differentiate the life styles of people of diverse stations, and bring a sense of authenticity to the historical world one is creating.

In this post, I thought it might be interesting to review what I have learned so far about the food that medieval people ate, using a few descriptions from my own novels as evidence.

Daily bread

I have read that breakfast was a meal that few folk ate, but maybe that applied mostly to the better-off, who might rise late and weren’t required to expend much energy during their day. For them, waiting until dinnertime – at around midday or so – might not seem much of a hardship. But, for the peasant who spent his or her entire day in the fields, rising at dawn and setting off to work soon after, waiting four or five hours for a first bite to eat would surely make for an inefficient, ineffective and disgruntled worker. I feel sure that most labouring people, and tradesmen, would have broken their fast before they went to work, albeit if all they had was just a hunk of dry bread and a cup of weak ale.

Eleanor wrapped two thick cloaks about her shoulders as she sat down to eat her unappetising breakfast – the breakfast Hawisa always insisted that she ate. In truth, a small bowl of Hawisa’s flavourless but warming gruel would have been more welcome than the hard coarse bread, dry cheese and mug of cold ale set before her.”

Peasants breaking bread. Public Domain via https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Dinner was the main meal of the day. In religious houses, the time for the meal was originally “nones”, the ninth hour after sunrise, which, depending on the time of year, might be the middle of the afternoon (i.e. the equivalent of 3pm). But, again, working people couldn’t wait so long, so “noon”, and dinner, generally happened around midday (12pm).

For most people, this would be the (possibly only) hot meal of the day. For working people (assuming they ate at home), it would usually entail a pottage of some sort – essentially a stew or thickened soup – with vegetables, a little meat if available, and maybe some “extras” gathered (possibly illegally) from the fields and woods. It would be eaten with a lot of bread and ale.

Peasants might not eat meat every day but, if they had the space to rear hens and a pig or two, then they might have the occasional chicken, and more certainly pork, including the bacon they smoked by hanging a flitch where it would receive the fumes from the fire. My reading suggests that, while beef was eaten, lamb was less often on the menu, even of the wealthy, perhaps because sheep were raised principally for their wool. Eggs and fish would be available, the latter perhaps most commonly for coastal-dwelling peasants, for fish in the manor’s rivers in principle belonged to the lord and was not available to his tenants, unless they risked poaching it. 

Pork butcher. Public Domain via https://commons.wikimedia.org/ 

Wealthier people might well also have some pottage, though the finest pottages might contain almond milk, or spices such as ginger and saffron. But they would perhaps also have some roasted meat, or a meaty stew – a brewet – which might also be rich and spicy. I imagine it was rare for peasant folk to have access to spices…

Apart from the vegetables in the pottage or stew, I have the impression that, if you were able to afford meat and good bread, separate vegetable dishes were not especially popular.

The quality of your bread was undoubtedly dependent on what you could afford. Wheat bread was the finest, white bread, with the bran removed, being the preserve of the wealthiest. Maslin was a mix of wheat and rye, perhaps much like our wholemeal bread. Much coarser and darker was bread made from barley, perhaps mixed with rye or flour made from dried peas, or at its worst mixed with chaff and waste from the bakery floor!

Desserts, of fruit, sweet pastry or some sort of milk-based pudding, might be an everyday aspect of the wealthy person’s table. I suppose peasants ate sweetmeats less often, but I assume they might have access to fruits of various kinds, including apples, pears, cherries and strawberries, all of which they could have grown in their gardens (though perhaps only the more prosperous amongst them would give space to growing fruit rather than the staples of onions, peas, beans and cabbage), together with what they could forage from the hedgerows.

Susanna was hurrying back along the narrow path from the vegetable plot to the house, bearing the last of the winter kale, which she intended to add to the beans and onions already in the pottage on the fire.”


Alice…knew exactly where to find the best brambles, as well as a good source of hazelnuts, and, in autumn, where she’d the best chance of locating a few fungi to add savour to her pottage.”


Scanning the remnants of the feast left scattered across the table, he grabbed a leg of cold capon, pierced some slices of roast meat with his knife, and tore a small maslin loaf in half.”

Chickens on a spit. Public Domain via https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Supper, I gather, was invariably something simple such as (yet more) bread, cheese and ale. Something cold was likely, especially in the non-summer months, when it would be getting dark by the time the workers reached home. That’s not to say that a stay-at-home housewife might not prepare a warming pottage for her family, if just with vegetables, rather than any meat.

Alice decided to make a little pottage for their supper: she added oatmeal to the pot, together with a few dried peas she’d already soaked and a scrap of the small piece of salted pork that remained, hung up in the storeroom. She stirred the pottage well, and waited for her sons to return.”

If supper in peasant homes was invariably modest, so it might be too in grander homes, even if the quality of the food was better…

Supper at Meonbridge manor was far more meagre than she had expected. Yet, what little was offered was of the highest quality: soft white wheaten bread, a little fresh butter and a delicious sheep’s cheese, both made in the manor dairy, and a bowl of cherries picked from the orchard – and a large flagon of rich Gascony wine.”

It is often assumed that everyone in the Middle Ages drank huge quantities of ale, downing mugsful at every meal. This assumption is based on the premise that water was a no-no, on the grounds that it was almost certainly polluted. But apparently this was by no means universally the case. Water was drunk, unless of course it was known to be unpalatable, which would be judged presumably from its smell and colour.

Having said all this, however, I must admit that most of my characters do seem to drink quite a lot of ale (or wine, depending on their social status)! The ale might be bought from an alewife, who might also run some form of ale-house or tavern, but many peasant housewives made their own ale. This home-brew had a relatively short “shelf-life”, and would be made often and in small batches. I have a number of references to people drinking spiced ale and spiced wine, both of which I have suggested were warmed, though I am not sure if this was invariably the case.

It seems that milk – cow’s, goat’s or sheep’s – was not generally consumed as a drink (except perhaps by children), but was more usually turned into butter and cheese, again often by the housewife.

Feasts might occur at weddings, at Midsummer, at Christmas. I describe at least a couple, both provided to the tenants by the lord and lady of the manor.

The first is a Midsummer feast celebrated at the end of June in 1349, when the devastation caused by the Black Death is finally coming to an end in my fictional community, Meonbridge. This is not a period of famine, but the arrival of the plague had meant that fields weren’t ploughed and sown as they should have been, animals and vegetable gardens had been neglected, so food was not necessarily in plentiful supply. Many people were hungry. The lady of the manor did her very best, in difficult times, to provide a substantial feast for her suffering tenants.

Roasted meats glistened on their trenchers, and dozens of small roasted birds – woodcock perhaps, trapped in the local woods – were accompanied by spicy dipping sauces. There were pigeon pies as well as a rich venison brewet served with a creamy wheat and almond milk frumenty, pease pudding and a thin spicy mortrews. As well as the usual dark rye and barley bread, they all shared a few small maslin loaves that contained a little wheat flour – Sir Richard was probably the only one in Meonbridge who still had wheat from last year’s harvest, but at least he was sharing it with his tenants.

Excitement buzzed around the company as the dishes were presented, then near-silence descended as everyone fell upon the food and devoured what was, for many, the only substantial meal they’d had for several months.”

From the Luttrell Psalter. Public Domain via https://commons.wikimedia.org/

And here is a description of a Christmas feast…

…there were coneys in wine, and little pies of venison, a brewet of beef in a thick spicy sauce, and hens stuffed and roasted and glazed with green. A wonderfully rich blend of smells, spicy and savoury, vinegary and sweet, tingled in her nostrils, enticing her to eat...
It was hard to restrain her eagerness to try at once all the appetising dishes laid out around her, but she contented herself with sipping wine and nibbling at the little white wheaten loaves, as she waited for her turn to come to be offered a rabbit leg and a few slices of roasted chicken...

As the first dishes were being consumed, more followed, the most magnificent a whole roasted pig, its mouth stuffed with apples, borne in on a great platter, still hot and steaming, presented to Sir Richard, then placed on a serving table for carving into thick, succulent slices…

Some sweetmeats had been brought to the tables, for those who had had their fill of meat – dishes of pears in wine and plates of honey cakes, baked apples and sweet custard tarts.”

Both of these feast passages do rather give the impression of a modern banquet, with the “first course” consisting of savoury dishes, and the dessert course following on. In practice I understand that courses might contain a mix of dishes, both savoury and sweet, served and eaten together…

Food away from home
Of course not all meals were taken at home... If dinner was eaten at midday, I suspect that, for workers out in the fields, returning home from the fields would take too long, so they would take a “packed lunch” instead. In this extract, the miller is simply too busy to take a break for dinner...

Pa was too busy to eat his dinner at home, because tomorrow was Midsummer’s Eve, and he’d got his orders from the manor. And bread and pies for the whole village needed a lot of flour, and he was racing against time to grind it all.

So Ma wrapped a hunk of coarse bread, a lump of cheese and a flask of ale in a cloth, and bade Peter run to the mill and give the bundle to his father.”

But, as working people so often do today, some might go to the pub for dinner…

‘G’day to ye,’ said a stranger, tipping his hat to the men sitting outside Ellen Rolfe’s ale-house, drinking and munching on Ellen’s hot meat pies…

‘Pies good?’ he asked, sniffing the steam rising from the pastry crust Roger had just sliced into with his knife. Then he tipped his head towards the ale-house door. ‘I jus’ ordered one.’

Roger nodded, his mouth full of hot meat and gravy.


We’re sitting in an alehouse near the market, spending some of the money on an early dinner of pies and cups of weak ale. …my pie[‘s] got meat in it as well as onions, though I have to chew and swallow hard to make all of it go down.”

It seems that, in my ale-houses, mostly pies were served! But not in all…

Some hours later, Thorkell and his brother were dining on stewed mutton and red wine in a grimy, noisy, smoke-filled inn near Andover, some thirty miles from Meonbridge. …the mutton was tough and gristly, and he tried to wash down the half-masticated lump with some of the foul wine. But he started to choke and tears came to his eyes. For a few moments he couldn’t breathe, and his face went red and sweaty, until Gunnar thumped him hard upon the back and the vile lump flew from Thorkell’s mouth and landed in the noisome rushes on the floor. Thorkell gulped more wine and, puffing out his cheeks with relief, wiped his sleeve across his eyes. Then both men threw back their heads and guffawed.”

Oh dear! That doesn’t sound much like “Good Pub Grub”…

Peasant meal. Aristotle, “Politiques et économiques”', France, 15th century. 
Paris, Biblioteque nationale, Département des manuscrits

During harvest-time, tenants were entitled to their dinner being provided for them in the fields by their lord. If the lord were generous, it could be something of a mini-feast.

Eleanor was certainly looking forward to a good long drink, for the day was warm and, despite the frequent small cups of weak ale handed round throughout the morning, her mouth was parched from the effort of her labours and the dust that rose constantly from the grain as she bundled the stalks together. The two women trudged across the field to where the food was laid out on huge trestles: a loaf apiece, great hunks of cheese, and even slices of roast meat, as well as enough barrels of ale to slake the thirst of a multitude.”

Exotic ingredients
I have already mentioned the use of spices. I assume that peasants rarely had access to any spices, because of their high cost. They were mostly the preserve of the wealthy, but it does seem that the use of spices of many kinds was very popular in medieval cuisine.

Here, although Eleanor isn’t “wealthy”, neither is she poor, and feels able to treat her cook to a little luxury…

Eleanor stood at the spicerer’s stall, breathing in the curious nose-tingling perfumes rising from the colourful sacks of seeds, barks and berries, and on the edge of a sneeze as pungent dust drifted from the peppercorns the merchant was scooping from a sack. She had always loved coming to the fair. Because it was held only once a year and lasted three days, it encouraged a few merchants to travel from much further afield.

…these foreign merchants sold mostly manufactured goods, which were often of much better quality, or more exotic, than anything the local merchants could offer – the finest woollen cloth, well-made pewter ware, and jewellery – and, sometimes, spices. A spicerer did not come every year to Meonbridge but, in the summer months, an employee of the spice merchant in Winchester would travel between a few Hampshire fairs, bringing cloves and cinnamon, and ginger and mace, as well as pepper. How delighted Eleanor was to find that the spicerer had this year chosen to come here.

She had already treated herself to a length of fine cloth for a new kirtle, and wanted to please Hawisa by buying a little spice and sugar for her to add to a pie or pudding. It could not be much, for she was not one of the wealthier sort, but Hawisa could make a little go a long way.”

The food of the poor
The poor, on the other hand – in my novels, these are the cottars, the labouring folk on the lowest rung of the social ladder – might struggle to provide their family even with the basics. Money was scarce, and they might have very little land to grow their own food.

Emma always knew exactly what she had available to feed her family: bread, of course, a few eggs, dried beans, a couple of onions, sometimes a scrap of bacon or a small piece of cheese when she or Ralph had earned a little extra. It was never much, and never in such quantity she’d not notice something going missing.”

She might have to make do with old vegetables, and be circumspect about how much she buys…

Emma nodded. ‘Four eggs, if you will, Alice, and d’you still have any leeks?’

Alice…held out two fat leeks... ‘Not many left,’ she said. ‘The leeks are rather old now, and you might want to remove the outer layers. Are these enough?’

Emma took one. ‘Just this.’ She’d keep as much of it as she could. She thought she saw a glimmer of understanding in Alice’s eyes. ‘And the eggs.’

At the same time, a woman such as Emma might well long for the opportunity to be a better provider for her children…

She knelt down by her meagre herbary with her weeding hook and fork. She’d learned from Alice long ago how to grow a few herbs, thyme and sage and marjoram, parsley, mint and clary, to add flavour to their simple food. She’d have liked to grow vegetables as well, onions and cabbages, but the plot just wasn’t big enough. She often thought with envy of Susanna’s croft, with not only space enough for vegetables of many kinds, and trees of apple, pear and cherry, as well as herbs, but also for a flock of fussy hens, and even a sty with two fat pigs.”

Food in the time of famine
In a time of famine, however, such as the period 1315-17, the increasing dearth of food might affect everyone. Even those who could grow their own would find their produce dwindling in the face of terrible weather and hopeless growing conditions. But, again, it would be the poor, with no resources, who would suffer most. 

I lift aside the piece of blanket covering my basket and show her the undersized onions and yellow-leaved cabbages. Taking out two onions and a small cabbage, Maud puts them in the pocket of her apron. Then she looks up at me, tears in her eyes. 

‘I can’t pay you, Agnes,’ she says, her voice the merest whisper. I feel a warmth rush to my face, remembering…Pa insisting I must always ask for something…

‘I’ll put them back,’ she says, but I shake my head.

‘No, Maud, keep them. Ma won’t mind.’

‘I’ll make a pottage. Maybe a few worms or grubs’ll make it tasty.’ She sniggers and, for an instant, she’s the cheerful Maud I remember. But the light’s gone entirely from her eyes. 

I give her a little smile. ‘Maybe.’

‘If they’re good enough for badgers,’ she says, ‘they’re good enough for us,’ and pats me on the arm.”

The hardships - and rewards - of war…
Even soldiers, fighting for the king, sometimes suffered from lack of food, when the king’s funds faltered. Yet, there were times too when they had more food than they could eat, when they plundered their enemy’s homes and farms in a brutal chevauchée

The Frenchmen don’t go quietly, but at least go with their lives. Though I can’t say they look grateful to be spared. Only once they’ve gone does Sir Henry order us to overrun their homes and gardens. We pile up our carts with whatever food they had: sacks of grain, remnants of smoked hams still hanging from the rafters, squawking hens and new-laid eggs, rounds of cheese and fresh-baked loaves of bread. We heave in flagons of ale and vats of milk. We tramp though their gardens, churning the soil to mire and ripping from the ground whatever’s growing there – beans, leeks, cabbages and turnips – and tearing fruit – apples, pears, medlars, quince – from their orchards. Then, throwing open the doors of barns and sties, we drive out those pigs and cattle we can butcher for our fires and slit the throats of those we can’t. When our carts are creaking under the weight of what we’ve gathered, we set light to whatever’s left – houses, barns, animals, trees. When it’s burning well we leave, to that night’s camp, to enjoy the fruits of our day’s work.

If you are interested in medieval cookery, although I haven’t tried out any of the recipes, this online cookbook (http://www.godecookery.com) offers authentic medieval recipes interpreted for modern use. Could be fun!