Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Reredfelle, an Eleventh Century Estate

Psalters, early medieval calendars, and The Domesday Book yield fascinating information about life on a medieval estate. For instance, a scene from Saint Mary's Psalter depicts the lord's reeve overseeing the harvest. The reeve is behind the cart which is drawn by three horses and is packed full of grain. The illustration climbs the margins of the Psalter page to meet a decoration of oak leaves on one side and acorns on the other. This represents the importance for the medieval villagers of the changing seasons.

The Lutrell Psalter also shows medieval agricultural scenes

The estate Reredfelle described in The Handfasted Wife can be found in The Domesday Book. Here it is written:

King William holds in demesne Reredfelle of the fee of the Bishop of Bayeux. Earl Godwin held it and then as now it was assessed for 3 hides. There is land for 26 ploughs. On the demesne there are 4 ploughs and 14 villeins. 6 borders have 14 ploughs. There are 4 serfs and a woodland yielding 80 swine for pannage. There is a park...

Outside the palisade, photograph by Paula Lofting, author of Sons of the Wolf

This was a perfect location for Earl Godwin's hunting estate with its park (deer park), woodland and agricultural activity. Reredfelle therefore became fictionalised as follows:

'Reredfelle was a sprawling territory of ash, beech and oak only a day's ride from Canterbury. On its southernmost edge, where the forest opened up into parkland fields and hamlets, Earl Godwin of Wessex built his new two-storey hall, a magnificent thatched building. The long side walls were painted with great hunting birds and in the centre of the front short wall an oak door led into an aisled room with a raised central hearth. Upstairs, Earl Godwin had his private rooms, an antechamber and through a doorway hung with a curtain of crimson and blue tapestry, his own bedchamber. Here he had two windows of glass, like those in the old minsters, set into deep oak frames; so you see, his wealth was great and he was not shy of showing it.'
The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath, published by Accent Press.

woman weaving outside the hall, photograph by Rich Price.

In  The Handfasted Wife, Edith Swan-Neck (Elditha), King Harold's wife, takes control of this decaying estate and restores it to its earlier glory. It would not be right here to give the spoiler, what happened to Reredfelle in 1066. I like to think of it as a successful and busy place, just as I have imagined it early in the story:

A wide track meandered past the woman's bower, a kitchen, stores and barns to a three-barred gate set into a palisade which protected the hall, its outer buildings, herb gardens, dovecote and a Chapel to our Lady. The same track curved from the gate, through parkland loved by huntsmen, and disappeared into the encroaching forest beyond. There was however a secret way in and out of Reredfelle. A small latched door was set into the orchard wall, concealed by fruit trees, which were shaped to arch over and conceal it...

The hall approach, photograph thanks to Regia Anglorum, An Anglo-Saxon hall reconstruction in Kent, near Canterbury

You can actually read a little more by opening up the book on Amazon where a sample is available. As a writer, I considered it important to set up this estate in a lyrical way so that the reader could visualise the exciting and horrific events that occur at Reredfelle later in the novel, and care about its survival, and about Edith Swan-Neck's fate as described in the novel.

Lower Brockhampton, Herefordshire
The decoration could be ornate

Anglo-Saxon Building

Wood was the predominant building material for domestic and secular buildings. High status late Anglo-Saxon buildings may have been very ornate as can be seen on The Bayeux Tapestry.  I wanted Reredfelle to feel both authentic and romantic.

A few facts:
  • A builder was timbriend and a tile maker was a tigelwyrthta.
  • Walls were of timber planking. Many estate buildings had turf or thatched roofs.
  • Sadly, traces of these 11th century buildings are ephermeral  consisting of post holes and pits that mark out their locations and size but little else. Many modern villages and towns have their origins in earlier settlement now lost to modern developments.
  • Life was governed by the seasons- Autumn, the harvesting of grain, slaughtering animals, salting meat, the preservation of fruit. Winter- repairing fences, killing the odd wild pig for the Easter feast, weaving, spinning, working with wood. Spring-ploughing, sowing, planting the gardens and fields, birthing lambs. Summer-hunting, tending the fields and orchards.

Hall Buildings

Changing Times

After the Norman Conquest of England, King William set about the task of working out what his new kingdom was worth, how much he could extract in taxes. To this end he instigated a survey of his domain. 'He sent men all over England and into every shire....what or how much everybody who was occupying land in England in land or cattle, and how much money it was worth.'
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, 1085.

The early medieval lady, photograph by Rich Price

The Domesday survey is a treasure for writers of historical fiction as it allows us to take information and reshape it into the fabric of an historical novel set during this period.

The Handfasted Wife
The novel

The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath is available on all e readers and as a paperback, published by Accent Press, May 2013.


Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Handfasted Wife

The Handfasted Wife is Edith Swan-Neck, the common-law wife of Harold II who was defeated by William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings. Handfasting was a traditional marriage ceremony that was frequently favoured in early medieval England. The marriage ceremony usually took place in a hall or manor house. Before the marriage ceremony could occur contracts were exchanged between the two families involved. During the wedding ribbons were used to tie the bride and groom's hands together to represent their union. The pair may also have exchanged rings. The bride and groom traditionally made their promises by the whetstone at the entrance into the Meade-Hall. If the couple were lucky it might be a love match but more likely it was an arrangement between families. When Harold married Edith he was a second son and she was an heiress.

 Edith Swan-Neck held land in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Kent. One of the sources for this story is The Domesday Book. My references include the primary sources The Waltham Chronicle, The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, The History of William the Conqueror by William of Poitiers and many other primary and secondary sources. Most interesting though were general research topics such as Handfasting, Clothing, Food, Buildings, Medicine, Religion, will making, women and property and generally, women's day to day life in 11th century.
Handfasting at Stonehenge

Although a priest might be present at a handfasted wedding this was not a union sanctified or blessed by the Church. Handfasting was a traditional eleventh century Danish marriage form. For a king, it allowed a 'get out' later! This happened in the real historical account of the marriage between Harold II and Edith Swan-neck. She was set aside after Harold was elected king so that he could make a political alliance that would unite north and south and therefore help him to protect England from  invasion.

It was traditional to bind the hands with ribbons

 Edith Swan-neck first interested me years ago when I was viewing The Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy. The video accompanying The Tapestry, which can be viewed in Bayeux, Normandy, suggests that Edith Swan-neck identified King Harold's body parts on the battlefield at Senlac Hill after the English defeat. The image of an eleventh century woman searching for her husband's ruined body on a battlefield haunted me.

Hastings and re-enactment

 After the Battle of Hastings, Edith recognised Harold's broken body. According to The Waltham Chronicle, this was by marks only known to her. So what were these marks? My curiosity was aroused. As soon as I returned from Bayeux I visited Oxford's Bodleian library to research further Edith Swan-Neck, her Northern rival Aldgyth, the Godwin family, Edward the Confessor, his wife Edith who was also Harold's sister and Harold's mother Gytha. I then read extensively about daily life in the eleventh century- particularly women's lives. Embroidery during this period is fascinating and very skilled, and so I have incorporated tapestry and embroidery into the fabric of the novel. I was also curious as to why this Norfolk heiress was called Edith Swan-Neck. It is evidently because of her long neck and white skin which was fashionable and a sign of beauty in the 11th century.

Carnage and embroidery

Then, I wrote The Handfasted Wife, published by Accent Press for all major e readers on 29th April 2013 and as a paperback on 9th May 2013.

The Handfasted Wife

The Handfasted Wife tells Edith Swan-Neck's story. In the novel I dramatize how Edith was set aside when Harold was crowned king and how she survived this. Harold needed to unite North and South against the threat of invasion and the handfasted marriage, not recognised by the reforming 11thC church, allowed a way out of the contract with Edith. Edith moved to a hunting estate near to the south coast.  In September 1066 many properties on the south coast were destroyed when William landed at Pevensey. The picture of the burning house on The Bayeux Tapestry with a woman and child fleeing may have been, historians, for example, Andrew Bridgeford, suggest, Edith Swanneck and Ulf, her youngest child. This novel follows Edith's story after she recognised Harold's body on the battlefield of Hastings, as her youngest son, Ulf, is taken as hostage by the enemy, possible remarriage, escape and pursuit through the war-torn south and over the sea to Dublinia where her older sons had been sent before The Battle of Hastings. Finally, she learns that her eldest daughter is in danger in Exeter and returns. When the royal women become trapped in the Siege of Exeter of 1068 the question will be: can not only they survive but how?

 If you read The Handfasted Wife, I hope you enjoy it!  Feel free ask me questions here and I shall do my best to answer them.

The Burning House

The Handfasted Wife contains themes of loss, love and reconciliation. Throughout the novel other royal women enter Edith Swan-neck's story. As in any historical fiction I embroider the facts. The knack is, I feel, to remain faithful to the mores and the atmosphere of the period in order to create a believable historical world.

A woman of 1066

The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath is available as a paperback from Accent  Press: http://www.accentpress.co.uk/new-titles.html
click on the book cover.



Sunday, 5 May 2013

Talking The Talk

Nowadays it is a given that Publishers expect every writer to  actively promote their own novels. Once the book is finally published the next duty that falls to the writer is to bring it to the attention of the great book-buying public in whatever creative or underhand way that they can. What would be the point of all the effort, years of it in some cases, unless the book reaches its intended audience?

One such promotional opportunity unexpectedly presented itself to me yesterday afternoon. I was at London's National Theatre and had just come out of seeing Maxim Gorky's Children of the Sun in The Lyttleton. I was slightly dazed because I had just experienced what must have been the most explosive conclusion to any theatrical production I have ever seen. Here, I shall say no more. You need to see it for yourself.


Buskers outside The National's Shed

The National Theatre has recently created additional public and performance spaces by extending outwards under the eaves of the existing building. The new performance space is a huge red wooden shed which they have imaginatively called 'The Shed'. It was in this space that I took part in what could only be described as the bastard child of Karaoke, a Talkshow for the masses, Talkaoke!  Yes, Talkaoke.


Instead of singing, participants are expected to talk. There is a custom built circular table with integrated speakers and lighting and in the centre on a swivel chair sits the miked-up master of ceremonies. He looks a bit like one of those high-tech anti-aircraft gunners but instead of swivelling around behind a Bofors Gun, ack! ack! ack!, he tracks round with his red sleeved gun mike.

The idea is that topics of discussion are audience-led. The host facilitates this conversation and encourages  any and all passers-by  over to his table. It is like a radio talk show except that it is not broadcast live. It is also democratic. The only qualification for participation is the ability to engage in intelligent conversation.I was beckoned forward and I took my place at the round table. 'What would you like to talk about?' he asked innocently. Well, what do you think I wanted to talk about?

I grasped this opportunity to start promoting (to the obviously literate crowd in the National's cafĂ©, just my "demographic") The Handfasted Wife, my new historical novel published by Accent Press. This then led into a discussion about how women in history have been marginalised in primary sources such as The Chronicles and how important and fascinating it can be to unearth their stories.

I did it my way......

The point here is that in such a crowded book market getting your book noticed by the public is not easy. All writers have to promote their novels even such well-established writers as Kate Mosse and Bernard Cornwall who have the privilege of sharing their thoughts with Libby Purvis on Radio 4's Midweek or with Tom Sutcliffe on Front Row.

Yesterday, in my own small way, I emulated them, bringing my message to a wider audience, well  there were at least thirty of them within earshot. But, every little helps! As I write this my good friend and fellow writer Liz Harris, author of The Road Back published by Choc-Lit is even now in Kansas City promoting her work. How's that for dedication and going the extra thousand miles?

Talkaoke in action - Live and Dangerous!

Competition time! Can you suggest any original or novel ideas for promoting a new book? The most original here will receive a free iTunes down-load of The Handfasted Wife. But don't forget to leave a contact detail. This amazingly generous prize is open for entry until midnight of 13th May, so hurry. (Terms and conditions apply - you may be required to appear at the 2015 Oscars ceremony in Hollywood!!)

The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath can be found on Amazon and other e-readers, and is available for pre-order as a paperback from Accent  Press: http://www.accentpress.co.uk/new-titles.html
click on the book cover.

 Learn more about Talkaoke here, it's coming to a place near you very soon...

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Sakura Fever

Sakura, the Japanese word for cherry blossom, is very short lived. It occurs in the spring, usually late March. This period marks a Japanese holiday period after which the new school year begins in April. The Japanese celebrate it with Hanami, cherry blossom viewing parties consisting of picnics, walks through parks and along streets lined with Sakura trees.  The Japanese worship, celebrate, and incessantly photograph the fragile blossom.
Sakura Fever in a Tokyo Park where every precious rectangular space under the trees is already marked out

This year we were fortunate enough to experience the phenomenon in Tokyo, in the Japanese Alps, Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, Kyoto and Hakone. As we criss-crossed Japan moving through it on the railway system  so did the Hanami.

Fabulous Tokyo at night

The festivities bring out the fascinating and the quirky side of Japan as well as being very social and beautiful. The Japanese are a lovely people. They are polite , respectful of each other, perfectionists, caring and fun and their children are allowed to be children. In cities space is precious. Yet the Japanese often have pets. We often saw tiny dogs dressed up as elegantly as cat walk models.

Traditional face and hair corner in the park during Sakura Fever

The Japanese enjoy photographing themselves. They arrange and pose, and smile.

Japan has interesting Buddhist and Shinto shrines. During the cherry blossom time they are particularly beautiful. Running water and the perfectly exquisitely cared for gardens make them a delight to walk around.

Shrine in a Tokyo Park

A very peaceful spot on a busy Saturday in a Tokyo Park

In the Japanese Alps where we walked through ancient hill villages the Sakura trees were just beginning to flower.

A mountain village

And at night under a full moon in Tsumago

On Miyajima Island near Hiroshima, known as Shrine Island and a UNESCO world heritage site, the cherry blossom did not fail to delight both tourists and Japanese citizens.

Along a street on Miyajima Island 

However, best of all was Kyoto. Kyoto is the old capital of Japan, the city of geisha, temples, beautiful streets along the river and canals, much less chaotic than Tokyo, less stately than Hiroshima and not so sad either.

Beautiful talented ladies who act, entertain, sing and dance until they are around forty years old
In the Geisha quarter in Kyoto at dusk

After a short time Geisha photographing as dusk descended, we participated in a spot of irresistible night-time Sakura fever.

 Kyoto at night

By day an enjoyable place to go in Kyoto is the Philosopher's Walk near the hillside that edges the city where there are craft shops, clothing stores inexpensively selling old kimonos, cafes, a plethora of ancient Buddhist and Shinto Temples and of course Sakura trees lining the canals.

The Philosopher's Walk , Kyoto
The rabbit is fleet of foot and she moves forward but the fox is the guardian of the rice fields.
A little Shinto Shrine off the Philosopher's Walk in Kyoto

Finally, we travelled on to Hakone using the old mountain railway for the final stage of our journey. We glided into a mountain spa town and found ourselves still shadowing cherry blossom. However, here it rained so hard for several days that the Sakura blossom's survival hung as delicately as a single Japanese silken thread.

Hakone Railway

Our balcony in Hakone

As the Lonely Planet guide says and our guide from Audley Travel confirmed to us as we began our trip,
'If you think of the Japanese as sober, staid, serious people, you owe it to yourself to join them under a cherry tree laden with blossoms in the springtime.'
The Japanese party, drench themselves in sake, wine and beer, picnic, and sing or dance to portable karaoke systems under the blossom-fat trees.

 I, too, partied during Sakura Fever

The Sakura blossom is ephemeral. It lasts only five to seven days, representing perhaps the fleeting nature of our existence. Yet, it also brings with it hope and renewal.


Thursday, 14 March 2013

Dining out in Ancient Rome

I have long had a love affair with Italy and enjoy reading novels set in either Ancient Rome or Renaissance Italy.

I was in Rome for a wedding last summer

And I have often wondered as I twiddle my spaghetti around a fork or order up my favourite Milanese chicken dish what it would really be like to dine out in Ancient Rome.

Sad to see it all fall apart

First I would wear an unstiffened kind of bust-bodice known as the stophium and a long tunic reaching to my feet probably made of linen or cotton but preferably of silk. I might choose blue as that is a favourite colour and it would be ornamented with a gold fringe and lavishly embroidered. Over this I throw my stola which is similar but it would have sleeves. Then, before setting out to visit friends for a long, long dinner in a fabulous new villa not far from the forum I call for my pella, a rectangular shaped voluminous cloak. It will cover my elegant coiffure.

My new hairstyle

My second best frock

Ah my hair! I sigh. I am not quite ready. I have forgotten my tiara. The ornatrix has already spent at least an hour arranging my locks into a cone. I admit it. My hair is bleached because, after all, to be a blond is  fashionable these days. I am proud that my hair is abundant and I have not had to resort to using false hair pieces. What you see is what you will get tonight.

My ornatrix rushes to my call and adds a gold tiara encrusted with sapphires saying it will match my gold rings, my anklet and my necklace and I say snappily, 'Don't forget my favourite earrings.'

They are made of three rows of pearls and were a gift from my late husband.

My feet are encased in slippers that are studded with jewels and which are dyed blue to match my tunic. I am now ready to climb into my litter and be carried to the new villa.

At the villa

I wonder will the more greedy guests spoil our evening tonight by overeating and dashing to the vomitorium with irritating regularity. I heard my slaves whispering amongst themselves that the cooks at the new villa have promised a great fat stuffed sucking pig, kidneys, stuffed dormice, snails fed on milk and fried in oil served with wine, rabbits cut from the womb, a special sauce of pepper, loveage, caraway, celery seed, rue, wine-must and oil. There will be my personal favourite dish too, fried veal in a sauce of raisins, honey,vinegar, pepper, onions and whatever aromatic herb the cooks have to hand.

Perhaps, I think, as I arrive at the villa which is lit up like starlight with a mass of tiny oil lamps, perhaps I shall eat just the tiniest morsel of everything tonight.  And perhaps, too, I shall find myself a new lover.

This piece is written to celebrate the publication of   Inceptio  by Alison Morton published by Silverwood Press and which can be purchased at your bookshop, Waterstones or online from Amazon. Inceptio is a speculative historical novel, a 'what if' the Roman world survived after AD 395.

The Forum in Rome

Saturday, 9 February 2013

The Trotula, Medieval Women's Medicine

The Trotula is one of the best sources of information about 'conditions' for women in the middle ages. It is thought by historians that The Trotula originated during the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Salerno, Italy. Salerno was the leading centre for medical learning in medieval Europe.

Front Cover

Its opening lines give us a flavour of the thought processes that permeated the medieval mind

When God the creator of the universe in the first establishment of the world differentiated the individual natures of things each according to its land, he endowed human nature above all things in a singular dignity, giving to it above the condition of animals freedom of reason and intellect.

A view of the medieval world

The writer points out that the sexes owned the following qualities- males were hot and dry and women were cold and humid. Women were weaker. The hot and dry male was stronger and thus could pour his 'duty' into a woman via his seed. The moist and wet and weaker woman was a conduit placed to receive his seed and thus was subject to the man.

Pregnancy and childbirth were dangerous conditions and on both The Tortula has much advice. Using references to Hippocrates and Galen its writer sets out and explains the causes , symptoms and perceived treatments for women's diseases. I thought I would share this example of advice for the regime of pregnant women.

  • Nothing should be named in front of her which she is not able to have, because if she sets her mind on it and it is not given to her, this occasions miscarriage.
  • If she desires clay or chalk, let beans be cooked in sugar and given to her.
  • Bathe her often at the time of birth.
  • Anoint her belly with olive oil or oil of violets.
  • Let her eat light and readily digestible foods.
  • If her feet swell up, let them be rubbed with rose oil and vinegar
  • Windiness and danger of miscarriage- give her three drams of wild celery, mint, cowbane, cloves,watercress, madder root, two drams of sugar, of castoreum, zedoary and Florentine iris. Let them make her a fine powder and let it be prepared with honey and give her three scruples of it with wine.
Herbs and measures, the medieval woman's survival kit

Measures such as scruples are beyond my knowledge so if anyone can enlighten me about the scruples and the drams I should be very interested. Both my medieval novels, The Handfasted Wife to be published in May 2013 by Accent Press and The Countess of the North , a work in progress, include eleventh century pregnancies.

The Trotula also contains advice and information on women's cosmetics, hair treatments, and a range of treatments for women's complaints. It is fascinating and a real source of information for anyone writing stories concerning women during the Middle Ages.

'For Veins which appear in the nose or on the face, we apply to the place three parts soap and a fourth part pepper, all powdered, and we cure it in the above mentioned manner.' Is anyone willing to try it?

So when she leaves her castle to visit another she will have paid attention to her appearance

The Trotula, an English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine edited and translated by Monica H. Green, published by University of Pennsylvania Press.