(One in a series of occasional posts from History Girl Associates. Susan Price gives us a wonderful glimpse of the past through a 21st century breakfast tray.)
When I visit schools, or give other talks, I often read a particular scene from my book, The Sterkarm Handshake. It’s an everyday tale of time-travelling folk and, in this scene the young 16th century reiver, Per Sterkarm, has been badly wounded, and brought to a 21st century hospital.
While there, he’s presented with breakfast in bed. The scene was inspired by my realisation that there wasn’t a single thing on a typical 21st century breakfast tray that he would recognise. Since he believes he’s in Elfland, where no mortal who wishes to escape must eat or drink, he is doubly determined to resist all offers of food.
The heroine, Andrea, offers him a croissant, which he sees as being like‘...like a large, fat grub with a ridged body…’ He dislikes its yeasty smell. At home in the 16th Century, on what is now the Scottish- English border, he would have eaten rye bread, oatcakes or flatbread, which was rather like crispbread and could be stored by stringing it from ceilings. Research brought home to me how restricted food was, in the past, by locality and season. Per eats oats and rye, because that was the grain best suited to the north before the agricultural revolution.
Andrea tries to make the croissant tempting with butter and jam, but the butter is yellow, and wrapped in foil and, to Per, ‘butter was white and hard and came to table in big lumps inside a crock.’ We think of butter as yellow because most of our butter is coloured.
The jam is even less of a hit. Since Per suspects the greasy Elvish ‘bread’ is made from men’s bones ground to flour, he is equally suspicious of this bright red goo. In the early 16th century, sugar was still a very expensive spice, since it wasn’t yet produced in bulk. Down south, rich show-offs may have been blackening their teeth with it, but I doubt that Per, in his god-forsaken ‘debateable land’ would have seen much sugar, or even have heard of jam. I wonder if our description of lucky people as ‘jammy’ is a reflection of this rarity value?
Per rejects, with disgust, a bowl of popping, snapping cereal, which he suspects of being hatching insect’s eggs, and so Andrea offers him a glass of orange juice.
Per admires the clear, straight-sided glass, and wonders if he could get it home to the 16th without breaking it. His mother has no glasses so fine. He also thinks the bright colour of the juice beautiful, as it reminds him of the ‘old story about a beautiful woman whose tears were liquid gold.’ (The goddess Freyja, remembered in folklore.)
Andrea hopes that he may have seen an orange ‘strung on a ribbon and stuck with cloves’. She tries the older form of the word: narange. There’s no response. Per’s never seen or heard of the fruit. Hardly anything in his world would have been that colour, or that bright. In his time, even carrots were dark purple or white. It’s telling that our name for the colour is the name of the fruit.
There is one last thing left on the tray. ‘It was long, thick, curved and as yellow as a coltsfoot flower. [Per] leaned to the left and right as he peered at it. He had no idea at all what it could be…
‘Andrea picked up the yellow thing. Curiosity silenced Per. He watched as she pulled at the thing’s top. The yellow came away in a long strip, white on the inner side. Long, sprawling white and yellow legs fell over her hand, leaving a white, curved stem standing up. It was like a dead man’s…
‘She broke off the pointed tip. He was surprised to see how easily it broke. Before his eyes, she put the tip in her mouth and ate it. “Try some…”
‘He shook his head.
‘”It’s good. It’s fruit.”
‘Unco Elvish fruit…’
The schoolchildren I read this to are highly amused, but find it hard to believe that Per would never have seen one of these unco elvish fruits, when they have them in their lunch boxes and can buy them at any corner grocery. I tell them that, in Per’s time, I doubt that either the English or Scottish king would have seen one.
I find it fascinating that a breakfast tray can give us a glimpse of another world.
More about the Sterkarm books can be found here: http://www.susanpriceauthor.com/books-by-susan-price/books-for-adults-and-young-adults/the-sterkarm-books/
Susan Price is one of the blog-team at Do Authors Dream of Electric Books? http://authorselectric.blogspot.co.uk/ Her own blog is at http://susanpricesblog.blogspot.co.uk/
Louisa Young will be rejoining us soon