Jun 082017

On this date in 793 Vikings sacked the monastery on Lindisfarne Island off the coast of Northumbria beginning a period of around 70 years when Norse warriors routinely pillaged monasteries along Britain’s and Ireland’s coastlines. Vikings had actually landed on Portland Isle, off the south coast of the kingdom of Wessex, in 789 and had killed the port’s reeve, but this event is not counted as a full blooded raid by historians.  Lindisfarne was; kicking off a series of Norse raids, that were not invasions because the Norsemen simply plundered and left.  This state of affairs changed in 866 when Viking troops conquered York and settled there, beginning a 200 year period of Norse control of various parts of Britain until Duke William of Normandy, himself a descendant of Vikings, moved into England and put a stop to further conquests from Scandinavia.

The monastery of Lindisfarne was founded by Irish monk Saint Aidan, who had been sent from Iona off the west coast of Scotland to Northumbria at the request of King Oswald. The priory was founded before the end of 634 and Aidan remained there until his death in 651. The priory remained the only seat of a bishopric in Northumbria for nearly 30 years. Finian (bishop 651–661) built a timber church “suitable for a bishop’s seat.” Bede however was critical of the fact that the church was not built of stone but only of hewn oak thatched with reeds. A later bishop, Eadbert removed the thatch and covered both walls and roof in lead.

Lindisfarne became the base for Christian evangelism in the North of England and also sent a successful mission to Mercia. Monks from the Irish community of Iona settled on the island. Northumbria’s patron saint, Saint Cuthbert, was a monk and later abbot of the monastery, and his miracles and life are recorded by Bede. Cuthbert later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. An anonymous life of Cuthbert written at Lindisfarne is the oldest extant piece of English historical writing. From its reference to “Aldfrith, who now reigns peacefully” it must date to between 685 and 704. Cuthbert was buried there, but his remains were later translated to Durham Cathedral (along with the relics of Saint Eadfrith of Lindisfarne). Eadberht of Lindisfarne, the next bishop (and saint) was buried in the place from which Cuthbert’s body was exhumed earlier the same year when the priory was abandoned in the late 9th century.

Cuthbert’s body was carried with the monks, eventually settling in Chester-le-Street before a final move to Durham. The saint’s shrine was the major pilgrimage center for much of the region until its destruction by Henry VIII’s commissioners in 1539 or 1540. The grave was preserved however and when opened in 1827 yielded a number of remarkable artefacts dating back to Lindisfarne. The inner (of three) coffins was of incised wood, the only decorated wood to survive from the period. It shows Jesus surrounded by the Four Evangelists. Within the coffin was a pectoral cross, 2.5” across, made of gold and mounted with garnets and intricate tracery. There was a comb made of elephant ivory, a rare and expensive item in Northern England. Also inside was an embossed silver covered travelling altar. All were contemporary with the original burial on the island. When the body was placed in the shrine in 1104 other items were removed: a paten, scissors and a chalice of gold and onyx. Most remarkable of all was a gospel (known as the St Cuthbert Gospel or Stonyhurst Gospel from its association with the college). The manuscript is in an early, probably original, binding beautifully decorated with deeply embossed leather.

Following Finian’s death, Colman became Bishop of Lindisfarne. Up to this point the Northumbrian (and later Mercian) churches had looked to Lindisfarne as the mother church. There were significant liturgical and theological differences with the fledgling Roman party based at Canterbury. The Synod of Whitby in 663 changed this. Allegiance switched southwards to Canterbury and thence to Rome. Colman departed his see for Iona and Lindisfarne ceased to be of such major importance.

In 735 the northern ecclesiastical province of England was established with the archbishopric at York. There were only three bishops under York: Hexham, Lindisfarne and Whithorn whereas Canterbury had the twelve envisaged by St. Augustine. The Diocese of York encompassed roughly the modern counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Hexham covered County Durham and the southern part of Northumberland up to the River Coquet and eastwards into the Pennines. Whithorn covered most of Dumfries and Galloway region west of Dumfries itself. The remainder, Cumbria, northern Northumbria, Lothian and much of the Kingdom of Strathclyde formed the diocese of Lindisfarne.


At some point in the early 8th century, the famous illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illustrated Latin copy of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, was made probably at Lindisfarne and the artist was possibly Eadfrith, who later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. Some time in the second half of the 10th century a monk named Aldred added an Anglo-Saxon gloss to the Latin text, producing the earliest surviving Old English copies of the Gospels. Aldred attributed the original to Eadfrith (bishop 698–721). The Gospels were written with a good hand, but it is the illustrations done in an insular style containing a fusion of Celtic, Germanic and Roman elements that are outstanding. According to Aldred, Eadfrith’s successor Æthelwald was responsible for pressing and binding it and then it was covered with a fine metal case made by a hermit called Billfrith.

The 793 Viking raid on Lindisfarne caused consternation throughout the Christian west and is now often taken as the beginning of the Viking Age. The D and E versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle record:

Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas  ligrescas, fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. Þam tacnum sona fyligde mycel hunger, litel æfter þam, þæs ilcan geares on .vi. Idus Ianuarii, earmlice hæþenra manna hergunc adilegode Godes cyrican in Lindisfarnaee þurh hreaflac mansliht.

In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th [day before the] ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.

The generally accepted date for the Viking raid on Lindisfarne is in fact 8 June. Historian Michael Swanton writes: “vi id Ianr, presumably [is] an error for vi id Iun (8 June) which is the date given by the Annals of Lindisfarne, when better sailing weather would favour coastal raids.”

Alcuin, a Northumbrian scholar in Charlemagne’s court at the time, wrote:

Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race … The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.

As the English became more settled inland they lost interest in defending the coastline. Many monasteries were established on islands, peninsulas, river mouths and cliffs because these isolated communities were less susceptible to interference and the politics of the heartland. This isolation and lack of defenses left the wealthy monastic communities completely open to and defenseless against raids from the sea.

The first Norse raids on the English northeastern coast, unsettling as they were, were not followed up. The main body of Norse raiders soon passed north around Scotland. The 9th century invasions came from the Danes from around the entrance to the Baltic. The first Danish raids into England were in the Isle of Sheppey, Kent during 835 and from there their influence spread north. During this period religious art continued to flourish on Lindisfarne.

The monks of Lindisfarne were legendary for their production of mead, a drink made from fermenting honey that has a long and storied history throughout Europe. You can get various styles of mead produced on Lindisfarne these days, but the recipe is a modern one.  No old recipes exist.  Let’s skirt that problem by making chicken in mead, a variant of chicken in wine or beer.

© Chicken in Mead


1 3-4 lb chicken, cut into 8 serving pieces
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 bottle mead
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper
1 tbsp butter (or olive oil)


Dredge the chicken pieces in flour by placing about one-half cup of flour seasoned with salt and pepper to taste in a heavy brown paper bag along with the chicken pieces. Fold the top over tightly, leaving air in the bag.  Shake vigorously for 30 seconds, then open the bag and remove the dredge chicken pieces to a rack.

Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and add the onion. Cook until soft and then add the chicken pieces, a few at a time, and sauté until golden on all sides.

If possible, make one layer of the golden chicken pieces in the skillet and cover with mead. Add the parsley, bring to a simmer and cook covered for 15 minutes. Uncover and turn the heat to high.  Let the mead reduce until it forms a thick glaze.  Turn the chicken pieces around in the glaze to cover and serve.

Oct 182015


Today is the feast of St Luke the Evangelist, author of the paired volumes, Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, sometimes called simply Luke-Acts to indicate that they are one book and not two. People who know Biblical scholarship are aware that Luke and Acts are 2 parts of a single book with a single author, but I suspect the average pew-sitter is not aware of this fact for no other reason than that they are separated in the traditional Bible by John’s gospel (although some newer Bibles put them together). Historically the author is equated with one of Paul’s companions called Luke who is mentioned in salutations in Philemon 1:24 and Colossians 4:14, where he is called “Luke the doctor,” and in 2 Timothy 4:11 where Paul says, “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” Most scholars now reject this identification, as do I. We do not know who wrote any of the gospels, but I will use the name Luke for the author for want of another name, but without equating him with Paul’s helper.

Luke’s gospel is one of the so-called Synoptic Gospels. According to prevailing theory, Mark was written first, then Matthew and Luke were written later with Mark as their primary source, but with other material added to suit their audiences. Matthew appears to have had Jews as his audience and Luke was apparently written for Gentiles. One classic comparison concerns the parable of the lamp. From Mark 4:21–22 we get:

21 He said to them, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lampstand?

22 For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.”

This is a specifically Markan point. If this is an authentic saying of Jesus, its original meaning is not clear to me; but Mark uses it in his own way. In his gospel Mark gives the impression that until the crucifixion Jesus was cryptic in his teachings and that his parables were designed to hide Jesus’ message in figurative language. This suggests to me that Mark was not familiar with the Judaic tradition of parables whereby a teacher explains a difficult point to his students via a colorful story. So Mark here is suggesting the lamp is Jesus whose light will shine one day.

In Matthew 5:14–15 we read:

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”

And Luke 8:16 says:

16 “Now no one after lighting a lamp covers it over with a container, or puts it under a bed; but he puts it on a lampstand, so that those who come in may see the light.”

VLUU L200 / Samsung L200

Too much can be read into the differences between Matthew and Luke, but Matthew talks about people in the house, and Luke talks about people entering the house. Some commentators believe that the difference points to Matthew being a Jew and hence addressing Jews (Judaism being the house), while Luke is a Gentile addressing Gentiles (newcomers entering the house built by Jews). This is a fairly weak point by itself, but the tone of Luke’s gospel as a whole does not seem Jewish. Furthermore, the second half Acts is devoted to Paul’s journeys into the Greek world to spread the Word to people outside of Jerusalem, whilst the first half concerns the apostles who stayed in Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE and subsequent dispersal of the Jews, the apostolic church in Jerusalem died, and Paul’s churches in the Gentile world survived. So Luke’s gospel may have been written for the Gentile church outside Jerusalem.

Luke’s follows Mark’s gospel reasonable closely except at the beginning. Luke 1&2 contain stories not found elsewhere in the Greek Bible. Most famous of these is the nativity, but also included are the Annunciation, the Visitation of Mary, the birth of John the Baptist, the presentation at the temple, and the boy Jesus in the temple. There are also three poems/songs, including the Nunc Dimittis and the Magnificat, that are used liturgically as chants or canticles.

You can find my thoughts on this part of Luke here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/visitation-mary/


Luke has a theological ax to grind in these early chapters. He’s trying to tie up loose ends. How come the Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem in the line of David, but Jesus is a carpenter from Nazareth? Who was John the Baptist really? Chapters 1&2 answer such questions. Without Luke we’d have no Christmas story, no shepherds, no manger, no angels. From a purely ritual point of view we’d really have an impoverished liturgy, not to mention the canticles and carols, without Luke.


Acts is an important book too because it fleshes out the historical side of the life of Paul. It is unlikely that Luke was actually Paul’s companion when he traveled, but there are certain passages in Acts where the narrative shifts from third person — “he” — to second person plural — “we.” These, known as the “we passages” are probably not Luke’s own recollections, but may well be transcriptions of the diary of someone who was, indeed, Paul’s companion. As such they are very valuable.

Luke’s Christian symbol is the ox, so a beef dish would be suitable for today. In England, in the Midlands, it was customary to eat Banbury cakes on St Luke’s Day.  You can get them now year round in the south of England and are a great favorite of mine at tea time. In Rutherglen in Scotland (now a suburb of Glasgow), it was customary to eat tea cakes with sour cream on St Luke’s Day — called locally at one time Sour Cakes Day.  So maybe you could combine the two and have Banbury cakes with sour cream. I’d do it if I could get ANY of the ingredients. My father’s brother and his family lived in Rutherglen most of his life. In fact that’s the last place I have visited in Scotland when I went to see my aunt and cousin.

Here’s a recipe for Banbury cakes. I’ve never made them because they are wonderful and plentiful from bakeries in England — and I am not a baker.


Banbury Cakes


50g unsalted butter, softened
1 tbsp honey
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
½ tsp ground cinnamon
100g currants
50g candied orange peel
plain flour, for dusting
500g pack all-butter puff pastry
1 egg white, beaten
1-2 tbsp nibbed sugar or crushed rough-edged sugar cubes


Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.

Cream the butter and honey together with the spices. Add the currants and the candied peel and mix well. On a lightly floured surface roll out the pastry to about 0.25 cm and cut out 10 x 10cm circles, re-rolling any trimmings. Divide the filling between the circles.

Bring up the edges of the pastry to enclose the filling and crimp the edges of the pastry together to look like little purses. Turn the parcels over, with the folds underneath. Roll each parcel out gently to an oval shape, taking care not to expose the filling.

Place the cakes on a baking sheet lined with non-stick paper. Brush with the egg white and sprinkle with sugar. Cook for 25-30 minutes until golden and crispy. Turn the oven down if the tops brown too quickly.

When cooked, transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool a little before eating. When cold, they can be spread with a little salted butter or sour cream.




Apr 252014


Today is the feast day of St Mark the Evangelist, author of the Gospel of Mark. He is one of the Seventy Disciples, and the supposed founder of the Church of Alexandria, one of the original three main episcopal sees of Christianity. No one can be sure of the actual identity of Mark but there are certain conjectures of long standing that have been accepted, for no really good reason, for centuries. The conventional belief is that Mark the Evangelist is the same person as John Mark who is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13; 15:37). Sometimes he is also conflated with Mark, the cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10; Philm 1:24), but most modern scholars consider this unwarranted. Nowadays the identification of Mark the Evangelist with John Mark is the scholarly consensus, but there are skeptics (myself included). A great many debates in theological circles hinge on who exactly Mark was. Was he an eyewitness to events in the life of Jesus? Was he a follower of Paul and/or Peter without direct experience of Jesus? Was he a scribe who collated oral and written traditions into a continuous narrative? The first is highly unlikely, the second is a possibility, the third seems to me most likely.

Scholars have favored the identification of Mark the Evangelist with John Mark of the Acts because he seems to be a significant figure in the early church. Here’s what we know about him from Acts:

    When [Peter] realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.[Acts 12:12]

   And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, bringing with them John whose other name was Mark.[Acts 12:25]

   When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them.[Acts 13:5]

   Now Paul and his company set sail from Paphos, and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem; but they passed on from Perga and came to Antioch of Pisidia.[Acts 13:13–14]

   And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.[Acts 15:37–40]

My first essay for my Greek Bible tutor at Oxford was “Does it matter whether Mark the Evangelist was John Mark?” (He believed he was). Well, yes it does, but at 19 I had no clue how to answer this question; I have pondered it a great deal in the intervening years. The reason it does is that if the gospel writer is John Mark we can speculate on his motives for writing the gospel. For starters, John Mark vehemently disagreed with Paul, so chances are the gospel is some kind of riposte to Paul’s teachings. It is known that Paul disagreed with the apostles in Jerusalem on several occasions, and the solution was for the apostles to continue working in Jerusalem, and for Paul to go on missionary expeditions throughout the Mediterranean. Probably the chief issue was whether “the way” – the earliest name for Christianity – was for Jews only (the apostles), or whether it should be spread to the gentile world (Paul).

If the gospel writer is John Mark then he was a friend of Peter’s, which would explain Peter’s prominence in the gospel. It would also explain why the gospel was written in Greek, yet the author is very familiar with Aramaic (Jesus’ native language). He frequently translates Aramaic sayings into Greek. But we also have to accept the fact that John and Mark (Marcus) were very common names in the 1st century, and, therefore, the gospel writer could have been any one of them.


There are a great many traditions surrounding Mark the Evangelist, chief of which is that in 49 CE he traveled to Alexandria where he founded the Church of Alexandria, which today is part of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Aspects of the Coptic liturgy are supposed to be attributable to Mark himself, although this is pure conjecture. Because of these traditions, Mark is celebrated as the first bishop of Alexandria and honored as the founder of Christianity in Africa.

In 828, relics believed to be the body of St. Mark were stolen from Alexandria by Venetian merchants and taken to Venice. A mosaic in St Mark’s Basilica depicts sailors covering the relics with a layer of pork and cabbage leaves. Since Muslims are not permitted to touch pork, this was done to prevent the guards from inspecting the ship’s cargo too closely. The possession of a truly important relic could have serious political consequences. When the body of St Mark came to Venice, the previous patron saint of the city, St Theodore, was demoted. The Doge of the day began to build a splendid church to contain the relics next to his palace, the original San Marco. With an evangelist on its territory, Venice acquired a status almost equal to that of Rome itself. To this day St Mark’s Day is a major festival in Venice.


In 1063, during the construction of a new basilica in Venice, St. Mark’s relics could not be found. However, according to tradition, in 1094 the saint himself revealed the location of his remains by extending an arm from a pillar. The newfound remains were placed in a sarcophagus in the basilica.


In art, Mark is represented sometimes as a young man sometimes as an old one, sometimes dressed in a bishop’s habit, with a lion at his feet and a scroll with words “Peace be to thee, O Mark, My Evangelist.” He holds a pen in his right hand and the Gospel in his left. He can also be represented seated on a throne decorated with lions, or else helping Venetian sailors.


For the sake of variety I will celebrate Mark with a modern recipe from Alexandria rather than an ancient one. Alexandrian liver is a popular dish throughout Egypt. It is commonly found in major cities sold by street vendors with fresh chiles, lime wedges, and warm pita. It is easily made at home. Just be sure not to overcook the liver.


Alexandrian Liver


? cup cooking oil
1 lb/500 gm calf’s liver, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
1 hot red pepper, seeded and chopped (more if desired)
1 ½ tbsps powdered cumin
½ tsp powdered cinnamon
¼ tsp powdered ginger
¼ tsp powdered cloves
¼ tsp powdered cardamom
Juice of one lime or lemon
1 tsp salt


Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over high heat until it reaches the smoking point. Make sure the liver is dry by patting with paper towels.  Add the liver to the hot oil and sauté quickly until it lightly browns.

Add all the other ingredients and continue to cook on high heat from 1-2 minutes. Then cover the pan and cook over medium heat for another 10-15 minutes until the liver is cooked through but not dry.

Serve with warm pita or crusty bread.

Serves 4