Apr 232018
 

Today is English Language Day as designated by the UN. The UN celebrates on different days for each of its 6 official languages, and there are many other “language days” promoted by various countries for languages that are not part of the UN official corpus. Today was chosen because it is St George’s day – patron of England – and is purportedly Shakespeare’s birthday. There is actually no record of Shakespeare’s birth. This date is conjectured to be his birthday because he was baptized on April 26 – http://www.bookofdaystales.com/william-shakespeare/  – and counting back three days to his birthday is a reasonable (but by no means certain) conjecture.  It is known that he died on this date, possibly making him one of the noble few who died on their birthdays.

English is classified by historical linguists as a West Germanic language that was first spoken in early medieval England, but the issue is considerably more complex than that because the Old English that was first spoken in what is now England (Angle-land), by Angle and Saxon invaders, is not intelligible to Modern English speakers. It has gone through several significant shifts in vocabulary and syntax that make me want to argue that it is a creole of Old Frisian and Old Norman (maybe with Old Norse thrown in for good measure), rather than a simple descendant of Germanic languages.

English has developed over the course of more than 1,400 years and continues to evolve. The earliest forms of English are actually a set of dialects that we do not have very many written examples of to be fully sure what was spoken in England in the 5th century when invaders from the north German plains moved into southern England. This collection of dialects used to be called Anglo-Saxon, reflecting its complex history, but is now usually called Old English. Middle English began in the late 11th century with the Norman conquest of England: a period in which the language was heavily influenced by Norman French. Early Modern English began in the late 15th century with the introduction of the printing press to London and the printing of the King James Bible, and was the period of the Great Vowel Shift, when pronunciation shifted dramatically (both vowels and consonants), and spelling and pronunciation parted ways.

Because of the worldwide influence of the British Empire, modern English spread around the world starting in the 17th century. English has become the leading language of international discourse and the lingua franca in many regions as well as professional contexts such as science, navigation and law. English is the third most spoken native language in the world, after Standard Chinese and Spanish. It is the most widely learned second language and is either the official language or one of the official languages in almost 60 sovereign states.

Modern English grammar is the result of a gradual change from a typical Indo-European dependent marking pattern (e.g. gender agreement) with a rich inflectional morphology and relatively free word order, to a mostly analytic pattern (i.e. using auxiliary, “helper” words) with little inflection, a fairly fixed SVO (Subject Verb Object) word order and a complex syntax. Modern English relies mostly on auxiliary verbs and word order for the expression of complex tenses, aspect, and mood, as well as for passive constructions, interrogatives and some negation. Despite noticeable variation among the accents and dialects of English used in different countries and regions – in terms of phonetics and phonology, and sometimes also vocabulary, grammar and spelling – English-speakers from around the world are able to communicate with one another fairly easily, increasingly so with the widespread availability of English language programs on public media.

Having an English Language Day does strike me as a bit like having a Straight White Men’s day, as does the attempt recently to create a celebration of St George’s Day in England. If you hold all the power it is not only pointless, but offensive, to celebrate how wonderful you are. The UN is being even handed about things by celebrating each of its official languages on separate days. That’s all right, I guess. English does not need a special day given its immense power in the world today. I have taught English in one form or another – writing, public speaking, etc. – all of my professional life, and have taught English as a foreign language (ESL or EFL) for a number of years. Teaching the language to non-native speakers is incredibly instructive. Having to think about the way you construct a sentence can be eye opening. Recently I was given to wonder why we use the future perfect to express a certainty about the past. For example, I can enter a new class and say, “You will have learned such-and-such last year,” meaning “I am confident that you know such-and-such.” We can use both the present simple (e.g. “I go”) and the present continuous (e.g. “I am going”) for past, present, or future. Try explaining the nuances to a non-native speaker.

Coming to grips with the “rules” that govern the order of adjectives, phrasal verbs, tenses, prepositions, and so forth in English, to be able to teach them, is a severe challenge. I have evolved a system via my teaching that might land up as a text book one day, but it is hardly a priority. The simple fact is that these so-called rules are mutable, and change from culture to culture. The big non-issue for me is British versus American English. Some Brits get really adamant about British English being the more correct of the two, which is utter nonsense. I once had a long, tedious, and fruitless discussion with an English pedant who wanted to argue that the British English “Wednesday to Saturday” made more sense than the American English “Wednesday through Saturday.” What a waste of time. Either way, you can get your point across. If anything, the American English is more logical because you are going through Saturday, not up to it. There is a notable difference between going to a door and going through it. But logic is not really the issue. The “logic” of English prepositions is not logical. You can tease out some generalities, but that’s it.

Old English recipes for everyday food do not exist but we have quite a few recipes for medicines such as this c. 9th century one from Leechbook III contained in the MS commonly called Bald’s Leechbook held in the British Library:

Gif mon biþ on wæterælfadle,
þonne beoþ him þa handnæglas wonne and þa
eagon tearige and wile locian niþer.
Do him þis to læcedome:
eoforþrote, cassuc, fone nioþoweard, eowberge, elehtre, eolone,
merscmealwan crop, fenminte, dile, lilie, attorlaþe, polleie, marubie,
docce, ellen, felterre, wermod, streawbergean leaf, consolde.
Ofgeat mid ealaþ, do hæligwæter to, sing þis gealdor ofer þriwa:

Ic binne awrat betest beadowræda,
swa benne ne burnon, ne burston,
ne fundian, ne feologan, ne hoppettan,
ne wund waxsian,
ne dolh diopian;
ac him self healde halewæge,
ne ace þe þon ma þe eorþan on eare ace.

Sing þis manegum siþum:
Eorþe þe onbere eallum hire mihtum and mægenum.

In modern English (roughly):

If a person has the water elf disease,
then his fingernails will be dark and the
eyes teary and he will look downward.
Prepare him this for a medicine:
carline thistle, cassock, the lower part of an iris, yew berry, lupine, elecampane,
marshmallow tops, fen mint, dill, lily, betony, pennyroyal, horehound,
dock, elder, centaury, wormwood, strawberry leaves, comfrey.
Soak with ale, add holy water to it, and sing this charm three times:

I within wrote the best war-bandages,
so the wounds not boil, nor burst,
nor hasten, nor cleave, nor throb,
nor the wound grow,
nor the gash deepen;
but for him I hold a health-cup,
it will not pain you any more than earth hurts the earth.

Sing this many times:
Earth reduce you with all Her might and power.

Heaven alone knows what water elf disease is. I have seen it claimed to be chicken pox or measles, but why this identification was made defeats me. The symptoms here are darkened fingernails and watery eyes. More interesting is the list of herbs used to make the concoction, which sounds like something Macbeth’s witches would dream up. Probably as useful too. No doubt modern Wiccans bottle it and sell it. Most of the herbs are identifiable and quite useful in cooking, and suggests to me that the common diet in England in the 9th century was richer than we give them credit for. Their breads and porridges may have been pretty plain, and probably the average peasant was not a foodie. But there must have been the odd baker or two who added some flavorings to the daily bread, or something different once in a while to the porridge. Of course, there are plenty of cultures in the world today where a daily porridge of grains is made without extras, even when wild herbs are available. My mother never added anything to our porridge in all the years I was growing up, but that’s because she was a thoroughly unimaginative cook.

English Language Day gives you full license to cook anything in English, although for my money I’d cook something that is decidedly English – if you can find such a thing. Recipes are like languages: their influences come from all over the place. However, the issue is not so much where recipes/languages came from, but, rather, what they have become. English might have once been a creole of German, Danish, and French, but it is now its own thing. Elizabeth David likes to claim that English Christmas pudding is originally French, and so it may be that some assemblage of the basic ingredients may once have been boiled together in France. But the dish as it is made now is English through and through. Japanese tempura is not a version of fish and chips, even though the Japanese got the idea of frying fish in batter from Europeans.

So . . . a thoroughly English dish to celebrate today? I’ve given a ton of recipes already, both regional and general, in my quest to counter all the stupid opinions generated by ignorant travelers. Most recently, a colleague of mine from Myanmar took an extensive trip to England and mixed up his occasional diet of fish and chips with Thai food because he could not find anything more “interesting.” That’s because he did not talk to me before he went, and his English hosts were not all that bright. Asking locals about good food is never a sure-fire way to get it – even in countries where the cuisine is legendary.

I’m going to go with faggots because they were a staple of school lunches when I was a boy, though they were not very good in those days. The name is also a word with different meanings in British and American English. They were cheap meatballs in gravy back then, which is not far off how they started. But they can be good if made well. They were originally a traditional cheap food of country people in western England, particularly west Wiltshire and the west Midlands. They were usually made from pig’s heart, liver and fatty belly meat or bacon minced together, with herbs added for flavoring, and sometimes bread crumbs as a filler and binder, then wrapped in pig’s caul and cooked. In a way, therefore, they were an informal sausage. This recipe is reasonably similar to 19th century ones.

Faggots

Ingredients

4 oz./110 gm fatty pork shoulder, minced
4 oz./110 gm pig’s liver, minced
8 oz./250 gm pig’s heart, minced
4 oz./110 gm bacon scraps
4 oz./110 gm breadcrumbs
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
½ tsp ground mace
1 tsp ground allspice
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 sage leaves, finely chopped
salt and pepper
caul fat (or streaky bacon)

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 375˚F/190˚C.

Place the minced meats, breadcrumbs, onion, herbs, spices in a large mixing bowl. Mix thoroughly, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Using your hands, moistened under running cold water, divide the minced meat mixture into 8 evenly sized portions and roll them into balls.

Wrap each ball in caul (or streaky bacon) making sure the caul overlaps and is secure. Place the faggots on a baking sheet and bake for 45 to 50 minutes. Serve immediately with onion gravy and mashed potatoes (maybe also mushy peas) rather like bangers and mash.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jan 052018
 

Today is variously known as Twelfth Night or the Eve of Epiphany. If you count Christmas Day as the 1st day of Christmas (which you should), today is the 12th day. I’ve covered a lot of this ground before in other posts, notably here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/twelfth-night/  Let me recap a little before addressing, specifically, the custom of Apple Wassailing that is attested on, or around, this date as early as the 16th century in the cider producing parts of the west country of England, and has been revived in a few places in recent years. There are no unbroken traditions dating even to the 19th century still being performed.  All wassailing customs now are revivals, with precious little to do with older customs, and always accompanied with the usual blather about them dating back to “pagan” times, which has no support whatsoever in primary documents.

The practice of giving English farm workers and servants 12 days off over what is now the Christmas season dates back to an edict by Alfred the Great (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/kings-of-england/ ). In 877 Alfred decreed that no servant should work for the 12 days following the winter solstice. This was the slack time on farms anyway, and was not really a Christmas tradition, as such, because Christmas was not really a celebration in Alfred’s time. When Christmas became more popular, the 12 days shifted over to Christmas from the solstice. Until the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions in England completely disrupted the annual farm cycle, taking a break from agricultural work in the depths of winter was perfectly natural. There’s no need to drive ploughboys and ploughmen out on to frosty land in late December to turn the soil, given that no planting is going to happen until the ground has warmed a little. There’s time enough for ploughing in January. Give the workers a break.

Even the etymology of “wassail” gets us into murky water. The word “wassail” seems to come from the Anglo-Saxon greeting wæs þu hæl, meaning “be thou hale,” or simply “be well” (which, ironically, is also the meaning of “fare well”). In many European languages the same word is used for “hello” and “goodbye.”  We should not put too much stock in etymology anyway; “goodbye” is a contraction of the old, “God be with ye,” but the etymology has no bearing on the current meaning of “goodbye” (or “farewell”).  According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) waes hael is the Middle English (post-Norman) spelling parallel to OE hál wes þú, and was simply a greeting, and not a drinking formula or toast. The OED explicitly rejects the notion that “wassail” or cognates was a drinking formula in the early medieval period in Germanic or Norse lands. However, by the late 12th century, Danish-speaking inhabitants of England had turned “was hail,” and the reply “drink hail,” into a toast, which was apparently widely adopted, although primary sources are sparse. At one time “wassail” was a toast that could be used any time people were drinking, but, at some undefined date, it became associated with Christmas and with Christmas customs.

There are two rather distinct wassailing traditions in England, both at one time associated with Twelfth Night: (1) Taking a wassail bowl of mulled ale or cider from door to door, singing a wassail song, and begging for food and drink. (2) Visiting apple orchards, particularly in cider-producing areas, and performing ceremonies aimed at securing a good crop. Both customs are attested back to the 16th century (but no farther !!!), but each suffered different fates. The first custom blended with Christmas carol singing and is pretty much defunct as a distinct tradition.  The wassail songs are still around, however, and folkies trot them out each year at Christmas:

The apple wassail tradition is a rather different story. It, too, is attested (sparsely) in the 16th century onwards, but had pretty much died out by the late 19th, and was revived in the 20th century without much information to go on concerning traditional practice. In consequence it is surrounded by the usual “ancient pagan origins” claptrap, and all manner of revivalists (especially morris dancers) join in. There was a tradition of morris dancing in the Welsh border counties, which also happen to be cider-producing regions, and these dancers did traditionally perform around Christmas. Just as with the door-to-door wassail customs, these dancers were looking for a hand out in the slack farming season, and hoping for a bit of goodwill from the farm owners who employed them. There is not a single record of morris dancers performing with wassailers prior to the late 20th century revival, where they are now ubiquitous.

Hard-core sentimentalists will tell you that the purpose of the apple orchard wassail traditionally was to awaken the tree spirits and to scare away the evil spirits hanging around to ensure a good harvest in the autumn. It’s a harmless belief, I suppose, and it’s conceivable that some people in some areas held some sort of magical ideas of the sort. But, I doubt that such beliefs were widespread. Modern people are alarmingly apt to project ridiculous superstitious beliefs on people in previous eras, as if they were both simple and stupid (but WE are so much smarter now !!). Save your pathetic narcissism. I guarantee that the vast majority of apple wassailers in history went out to the orchards to drink and have a good time, same as they do now. Nonetheless, you’ll get revival performances such as this one assuring you that the performers are continuing an ancient pagan tradition:

I guess they are having fun. All fine, but you won’t find me at any such events.

There is some evidence that certain customs had a vogue at one point, but it would not be wise to generalize them to all apple wassails in all regions, as amateurs (and even professionals) are wont to do. Apple wassails in the 19th century usually involved a procession from one orchard to the next, sometimes with an accompanying song. The song might also be sung around the apple tree, or a verse recited. For example,

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
Hurrah! Hurrah!

Perhaps someone in the group might be designated “king” or “queen” of the wassail, whose job it was to place a special object in the branches of the apple tree. I don’t know about this, though. When people make this suggestion, I’m tempted to think they are confusing the king and queen of Epiphany feasts with wassailing customs. Nonetheless it does seem traditional to place objects on or neat the trees. Pieces of toast dipped in mulled ale from a wassail cup, was one such tradition. Placing the toast at the foot of the trees is also attested.

I will idly entertain the speculation, for a moment only, that adorning a tree with toast dipped in ale is one way that “drink a toast” became a common expression for making a special pronouncement and then drinking. It’s possible, but there is zero evidence to support such a speculation. OED is crystal clear that there is no known origin of the phrase, stupid pontifications by Sheldon Cooper in Big Bang Theory, notwithstanding. The show needs smarter writers.

At the end of the activities in a particular orchard there is also evidence that sometimes a designated person fired a shotgun into the branches of the apple trees. The assembled crowd might also bang pots and pans to make a racket. Scaring evil spirits away? Having a good time? You decide.

There’s plenty of recipes for “traditional” wassail recipes online if you want to go in that direction. I never liked mulled beer or cider. When I drank alcohol, if I wanted to drink cider I would go to a cider farm in Somerset or Herefordshire and buy a big jug and drink it – as is – nothing added. If you feel the need at this time of year, go ahead. I won’t be joining you. Last year I gave a recipe for a Twelfth Night cake for today, which is pretty much a no brainer. Twelfth Night parties were always dominated by a special cake.  But we’re talking about wassailing here, and if I’m not going to indulge in a wassail recipe or lambswool or whatever, I’m a bit challenged. So, I came up with wassail chicken (which could be wassail beef if you want) – a sort of coq-au-vin knock off, but using cider instead of red wine, and Christmas spices in place of the usual herbs.  I’ve added a little cognac too for good measure – reminiscent of my drinking days when I made mulled cider drinkable by adding a tot (or three) of brandy. Here’s the general outline, without precise quantities. You can replace the chicken breasts with a good cut of steak (Argentine beef would work well, I am sure). It has to be a cut that is tender and does not need a lot of cooking.

© Tío Juan’s Wassail Chicken

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a heavy skillet over high heat, and when it is melted add 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. When it starts to smoke add boneless chicken breasts and sauté until golden on both sides. As the breasts are cooking add button mushrooms of your choice. I used wild Asian mushrooms, but you can make do with any small mushrooms as long as they are flavorful. When the breasts are nicely seared, add a splash of cognac to the pan, let if flambé, and when the flames are dying down add 1 tablespoon of all-purpose flour. Stir the ingredients together so that the oil, butter, and flour form a roux with no lumps or dry spots. Add a bottle (10 fl oz) of good quality cider. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly. Add, to taste, your choice of “Christmas” herbs: allspice, powdered cloves, nutmeg, mace, powdered ginger, and cinnamon. I tend to dump them in, one at a time, starting with allspice (because it is my favorite at Christmas), and then tasting and adding, tasting and adding. I also add a small amount of fresh red chile pepper because I like a little kick. Turn the heat to a simmer and cook the chicken to about 10 to 15 minutes – until it is barely cooked and the sauce has thickened. Serve immediately. You could serve the dish with a baked potato, noodles, rice, or what you will. I accompanied it with braised celery and spinach because I had them on hand.

Oct 012017
 

On this date in 959 CE Edgar the Peaceful became king of all England. Before I get into details about Edgar let me dribble on for a while about the history of Anglo-Saxon England, particularly about how it is conceived in standard school textbooks. As a schoolboy I was taught that the BIG EVENT in English history was the conquest by William the Bastard in 1066.  Anglo-Saxon history was no more than a series of cute vignettes, such as Alfred and the cakes, or Canute commanding the waves. The rest was irrelevant to the REAL history of England which began with William. This is pure propaganda, still fed to us by the line of monarchs that followed down to the current useless bunch. If you look closely at the history of post-conquest England you’ll see that for about 100 years, following William, England was nothing more than a province of Normandy (or various other French power blocs) as far as its kings were concerned. The kings spoke French and spent most of their time away from England. England was nothing more than a source of income and labor. Richard I, vaunted by Victorian Romantics as the GREAT KING, spoke French, and when he wasn’t Crusading was battling enemies in continental Europe. He spent no more than a few months in England during his entire reign. His brother, John, on the other hand, was reviled by the Victorians because of Magna Carta and the like.

Go here for much more of my thoughts on all of this:

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/richard-lionheart/

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/king-john/

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/magna-carta/

The fact is that William, while he unified England in certain critical ways, was not by any means the first king of England. Who was the first king of a unified England will be debated endlessly, no doubt. Some say it was Alfred the Great (849 –  899), some, his grandson, Æthelstan (c. 894 – 939). I’ll leave you to read the details elsewhere.  No one disputes that Edgar I was king of all England with provincial kings under him, although, like Alfred and Æthelstan, he is sometimes called king of the English.

Edgar I (Old English: Ēadgār – “happy spear” i.e. powerful) was the son of Edmund I and Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury. Upon the death of Edmund in 946, Edgar’s uncle, Eadred, ruled until 955. Eadred was succeeded by his nephew, Eadwig, son of Edmund (Edgar’s older brother). Eadwig was not a popular king, and his reign was marked by conflict with nobles and the Church, primarily St Dunstan and Archbishop Oda. In 957, the thanes of Mercia and Northumbria changed their allegiance to Edgar. A conclave of nobles declared Edgar as king of the territory north of the Thames. Edgar became king of all England on Eadwig’s death October 959, aged just 16.

One of Edgar’s first actions was to recall Dunstan from exile and have him made Bishop of Worcester (and subsequently Bishop of London and later, Archbishop of Canterbury). Dunstan remained Edgar’s advisor throughout his reign. While Edgar may not have been a particularly passive man, his reign was peaceful. The kingdom of England was well established, and Edgar consolidated the political unity achieved by his predecessors. By the end of his reign, England was sufficiently unified in that it was unlikely to regress back to a state of division among rival kingships, as it had to an extent under the reign of his uncle Eadred. In fact, some historians have argued that it was Edgar who was the truly pivotal figure in uniting all England by standardizing laws throughout the kingdom – far more than either Alfred or Æthelstan. In a letter to his subjects Canute states, ”it is my will that all the nation, ecclesiastical and lay, shall steadfastly observe Edgar’s laws, which all men have chosen and sworn at Oxford”.

The Monastic Reform Movement that introduced the Benedictine Rule to England’s monastic communities peaked during the era of Dunstan, Æthelwold, and Oswald, although the extent and significance of this movement is still debated.

Edgar was crowned at Bath and, along with his wife Ælfthryth, was anointed, setting a precedent for a coronation of a queen in England. Edgar’s coronation did not occur until 973, planned not as the initiation, but as the culmination of his reign, and which took a considerable amount of preliminary diplomacy with lesser kings. The coronation service, devised by Dunstan himself and celebrated with a poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, forms the basis of the present-day British coronation ceremony. The coronation was an important symbolic step towards further unification. Other kings of Britain came and gave their allegiance to Edgar shortly afterwards at Chester. Six kings in Britain, including the King of Scots and the King of Strathclyde, pledged their faith that they would be the king’s liege-men on sea and land. Later chroniclers made the kings into eight, all plying the oars of Edgar’s state barge on the River Dee.

Edgar died on 8 July 975 at Winchester, Hampshire. He left behind Edward, who was probably his illegitimate son by Æthelflæd (not to be confused with the Lady of the Mercians), and Æthelred the younger, the child of his wife Ælfthryth. He was succeeded by Edward.

As it happens, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management  was published first on this date in 1861.  I’ve mentioned it numerous times before when I’ve needed Victorian recipes as well as here:

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/isabella-beeton/

As it also happens, she had a lot to say about Anglo-Saxons and their cooking. To begin she has a point to make about food and the English language that I have taught numerous times.

NAMES OF ANIMALS SAXON, AND OF THEIR FLESH NORMAN.—The names of all our domestic animals are of Saxon origin; but it is curious to observe that Norman names have been given to the different sorts of flesh which these animals yield. How beautifully this illustrates the relative position of Saxon and Norman after the Conquest. The Saxon hind had the charge of tending and feeding the domestic animals, but only that they might appear on the table of his Norman lord. Thus ‘ox,’ ‘steer,’ ‘cow,’ are Saxon, but ‘beef’ is Norman; ‘calf’ is Saxon, but ‘veal’ Norman; ‘sheep’ is Saxon, but ‘mutton’ Norman; so it is severally with ‘deer’ and ‘venison,’ ‘swine’ and ‘pork,’ ‘fowl’ and ‘pullet.’ ‘Bacon,’ the only flesh which, perhaps, ever came within his reach, is the single exception.

She goes on to say later:

THE HOG IN ENGLAND.—From time immemorial, in England, this animal has been esteemed as of the highest importance. In the Anglo-Saxon period, vast herds of swine were tended by men, who watched over their safety, and who collected them under shelter at night. At that time, the flesh of the animal was the staple article of consumption in every family, and a large portion of the wealth of the rich freemen of the country consisted of these animals. Hence it was common to make bequests of swine, with lands for their support; and to these were attached rights and privileges in connection with their feeding, and the extent of woodland to be occupied by a given number was granted in accordance with established rules. This is proved by an ancient Saxon grant, quoted by Sharon Turner, in his “History of the Anglo-Saxons,” where the right of pasturage is conveyed in a deed by the following words:—”I give food for seventy swine in that woody allotment which the countrymen call Wolferdinlegh.”

This all leads me to think that a dish of boiled bacon is the answer. As Beeton tells us, bacon was the common meat of the Anglo-Saxons, and boiled bacon would have been something festive for many people.  We’re not talking about the common sliced breakfast bacon, but a full rolled joint. It might be a little difficult to find but you could make one yourself.  That’s a recipe for another time.  Here’s Beeton. I usually add some potatoes, carrots, and onions to the water when I am boiling the bacon. I serve it with hot English mustard (along with peas or broad beans to go with the potatoes and carrots).  Potatoes don’t match the Anglo-Saxon period, of course, but everything else does.

BOILED BACON.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—Bacon; water.

Mode.—As bacon is frequently excessively salt, let it be soaked in warm water for an hour or two previous to dressing it; then pare off the rusty parts, and scrape the under-side and rind as clean as possible. Put it into a saucepan of cold water, let it come gradually to a boil, and as fast as the scum rises to the surface of the water, remove it. Let it simmer very gently until it is thoroughly done; then take it up, strip off the skin, and sprinkle over the bacon a few bread raspings, and garnish with tufts of cauliflower or Brussels sprouts. When served alone, young and tender broad beans or green peas are the usual accompaniments.

Time.—1 lb. of bacon, 1/4 hour; 2 lbs., 1-1/2 hour.

Average cost, 10d. to 1s. per lb. for the primest parts.

Sufficient.—2 lbs., when served with poultry or veal, sufficient for 10 persons.

Seasonable at any time.

 

May 262015
 

ed1

On this date in 946 Edmund I of England called the Elder, the Deed-doer, the Just, or the Magnificent, was murdered. He was a son of Edward the Elder and half-brother of Æthelstan. Æthelstan died on 27 October 939, and Edmund succeeded him as king. I have to confess that Anglo-Saxon England has always been a bit of a blind spot for me. It was not taught in school where the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the unification of England under William were pretty much the starting points of English. Over the years I’ve dabbled a bit – even got the hang of Old English once (it’s not hard) – but the period has never grabbed me. It’s of most use when I am tramping around peripheral bits of the English countryside.

ed8

In Edmund’s time, what is now England was a series of major kingdoms plus some minor ones, with a vast swathe of the country ruled by Danish Vikings (Danelaw) whose homeland could not produce enough food to support them. There were, therefore, constant struggles between the English and the Danes – evident in Edmund’s biography. We have very few reliable primary sources for the history of the period, so details are scanty.

Edmund came to the throne as the son of Edward the Elder, grandson of Alfred the Great, great-grandson of Æthelwulf of Wessex, great-great grandson of Egbert of Wessex and great-great-great grandson of Ealhmund of Kent. Shortly after his proclamation as king, he had to face several military threats. King Olaf III Guthfrithson conquered Northumbria and invaded the Midlands; when Olaf died in 942, Edmund reconquered the Midlands. In 943, Edmund became the god-father of King Olaf of York. In 944, Edmund was successful in reconquering Northumbria. In the same year, his ally Olaf of York lost his throne and left for Dublin. Olaf became the king of Dublin as Amlaíb Cuarán and continued to be allied to his god-father. In 945, Edmund conquered Strathclyde but ceded the territory to King Malcolm I of Scotland in exchange for a treaty of mutual military support. Edmund thus established a policy of safe borders and peaceful relationships with Scotland. During his reign, the revival of monasteries in England began.

One of Edmund’s last political actions of which there is some knowledge is his role in the restoration of Louis IV of France to the throne. Louis, son of Charles the Simple and Edmund’s half-sister Eadgifu, had resided at the West-Saxon court for some time until 936, when he returned to be crowned King of France. In the summer of 945, he was captured by the Norsemen of Rouen and subsequently released to Duke Hugh the Great, who held him in custody. The chronicler Richerus claims that Eadgifu wrote letters both to Edmund and to Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor in which she requested support for her son. Edmund responded to her plea by sending angry threats to Hugh, who brushed them aside. Flodoard’s Annales, one of Richerus’ sources, report:

Edmund, king of the English, sent messengers to Duke Hugh about the restoration of King Louis, and the duke accordingly made a public agreement with his nephews and other leading men of his kingdom. […] Hugh, duke of the Franks, allying himself with Hugh the Black, son of Richard, and the other leading men of the kingdom, restored to the kingdom King Louis.

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On 26 May 946, Edmund was murdered by Leofa, an exiled thief, while attending St Augustine’s Day mass in Pucklechurch (South Gloucestershire). John of Worcester and William of Malmesbury add some lively detail by suggesting that Edmund had been feasting (i.e. drinking) with his nobles, when he spotted Leofa in the crowd. He attacked the intruder in person, but in the event, Leofa killed him. Leofa was killed on the spot by those present. Both these chronicles were written 200 years after the event, so they are not really to be trusted even though they are probably based on earlier sources. Best we have. Here’s the original from William:

A certain robber named Leofa, whom he [Edmund] had banished for his crimes, returning after six years’ absence totally unexpected, was sitting, on the feast of St. Augustine, the apostle of the English, and first archbishop of Canterbury, among the royal guests at Puckle-church, for on this day the English were wont to regale in commemoration of their first preacher ; by chance too, he was placed near a nobleman whom the king had condescended to make his guest. This, while the others were eagerly carousing, was perceived by the king alone ; when, hurried with indignation and impelled by fate, he leaped from the table, caught the robber by the hair, and dragged him to the floor ; but he secretly drawing a dagger from its sheath plunged it with all his force into the breast of the king as he lay upon him. Dying of the wound, he gave rise over the whole kingdom to many fictions concerning his decease. The robber was shortly torn limb from limb by the attendants who rushed in, though he wounded some of them ere they could accomplish their purpose.

St. Dunstan, at that time abbat of Glastonbury, had foreseen his ignoble end, being fully persuaded of it from the gesticulations and insolent mockery of a devil dancing before him. Wherefore, hastening to court at full speed, he received intelligence of the transaction on the road. By common consent then it was determined, that his body should be brought to Glastonbury and there magnificently buried in the northern part of the tower. That such had been his intention, through his singular regard for the abbat, was evident from particular circumstances. The village also where he was murdered was made an offering for the dead, that the spot which had witnessed his fall might ever after minister aid to his soul.

Edmund was succeeded as king by his brother Eadred, king from 946 until 955. Edmund’s sons later ruled England as:

Eadwig, King of England from 955 until 957, king of only Wessex and Kent from 957 until his death on 1 October 959.

Edgar the Peaceful, king of only Mercia and Northumbria from 957 until his brother’s death in 959, then king of England from 959 until 975.

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Cooking in Edmund’s time is not well documented but you can get the basic idea from chronicles. Ælfric’s Colloquy, for example, written a little after Edmund’s time, gives an account of trades in England including food production. Here’s a sample (full text here http://www.kentarchaeology.ac/authors/016.pdf ):

Teacher: Salter, how does your craft benefit us?

Salter: Everyone benefits a great deal from my skill. No-one enjoys his breakfast or dinner unless my

skill is present in it.

Teacher: How is that?

Salter: Who enjoys his meals without the flavouring of salt? Who can replenish his saltcellars without the prompt supply which my skill provides? Indeed, all the butter and cheese would go bad unless I looked after it. You would not be able to use your vegetables without my skill.

Teacher: What do you say, baker, how does your skill benefit us, or can we lead our live without it?

Baker: You can live for some time without my craft, but you cannot live well for a long time without it. For without my craft the whole table would appear bare, and without bread all your food would become vomit. I put new heart into man, I see the strength of men and not even small children would wits to shun me.

Teacher: What can we say about you, cook? Do we have need of any of your skills?

Cook: If you drive me away from your community you would eat your vegetables raw (green) and your meat raw; and, moreover, without my skill, you would be unable to have good rich broth.

Teacher: We do not care about your skill, it is of no importance to us, since we can cook what needs to be cooked and eat what needs to be eaten.

Cook: If you did drive me out, as you would like to do, then you would all be cooks and no one would be your Lord. Moreover, without my skill you would not eat.

The Colloquy shows a clear difference between the food of the gentry and the peasantry. The former ate hunted and domesticated meats, whilst the latter ate cereals, vegetables, and fish for the most part. Chief cereals were rye for bread, barley for brewing and cooking, and oats for animal feed and porridge. I gave a recipe for Anglo-Saxon hare and barley stew here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/j-r-r-tolkien/ .

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The two principle modes of cooking were spit roasting for the rich, and cauldron boiling for the poor. For Edmund a feast such as he was attending when he was killed would have been mainly spit roast hunted meats. From Ælfric:

Teacher: Do you have any skill?

Hunter: Yes, I have one skill.

Teacher: What is that?

Hunter: I am a hunter.

Teacher: In whose service?

Hunter: The King’s.

Teacher: How do you perform your skills?

Hunter: I take my nets with me and set them in a suitable place, and set my hounds to pursue the beasts so that they reach the nets unexpectedly and are ensnared. Then, while they are still trapped in the nets, I cut their throats.

Teacher: Do you have any other method of hunting instead of nets?

Hunter: Yes, indeed, I hunt without using nets.

Teacher: How?

Hunter: I chase the wild beasts with very swift hounds.

Teacher: What sort of beasts do you catch mainly?

Hunter: I catch harts, bears, does, goats and some hares.

Teacher: Did you go out hunting today?

Hunter: No, I did not, because I had to spend today on my lord’s estate, but I went out hunting yesterday.

Teacher: What did you catch?

Hunter: I caught two harts and a boar.

Teacher: How did you catch them?

Hunter: I caught the harts in the nets and I cut the boar’s throat.

Teacher: How did you dare to cut the boar’s throat?

Hunter: My dogs drove him towards me, and I stood against him and suddenly slew him.

Teacher: You must have been very brave indeed.

Hunter: A hunter must be very brave, since all kinds of beasts lurk in the woods.

Teacher: What do you get from your hunting?

Hunter: Whatever I capture I give to the King, since I am his huntsman.

Teacher: What does he give you?

Hunter: He feeds me and clothes me, and gives me a horse and armour, so that I can perform my duties as a hunter freely.

So, have at it; spit roast the meat of your choice.

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For the rest of us peasants maybe a hearty stew? Anything and everything went into the cauldron, so the idea of a recipe, as such, is rather too modern. Instead, I suggest you just put together something akin to Scotch Broth, that is, meat stock, barley and vegetables including carrots, onions, and leeks, with sage for flavoring (available wild in Anglo-Saxon England). More or less like the Anglo-Saxon cook I do not use a recipe, but chuck in what I have. Because there’s not much to it you can understand the Colloquy’s disdain for the cook.

Put a meaty bone (preferably lamb) into a large soup pot and add 2 cups or so of pearly barley. Cover with water, bring to a boil and simmer until the barley is well cooked (usually about 2 hours). Add water as needed. Along the way add diced carrots, onions, and leeks, flavoring with salt and sage. At the end, remove the bone and strip the meat, which you return to the pot. I add lashings of freshly ground black pepper but this would have been beyond the means of the Anglo-Saxon peasant. Any root vegetable, such as turnip or parsnip can be added with the carrots. Serve with rye bread.