Lighting Up The Dark Ages

The home of Author Annie Whitehead

Year: 2017 (page 1 of 2)

Hearts, Home, and a Precious Stone

Saxon England – when the wars between the kingdoms were fierce, and the struggle to survive was even fiercer…

The Discovering Diamonds Review Blog Site is running a series of stories under the heading, Diamond Tales, throughout December. My story, Hearts, Home, and a Precious Stone, tells the tale of generations of displaced Anglo-Saxons, and how one precious stone links them all…

East Anglia – 616
She stared up at him. Her hands were wet from clutching the washing and for a moment she was only aware of the drip trickling through her fingers and the ragged breathing sounds. His, not hers. For it seemed like she had been holding her breath since he pulled up in front of her, his boots half-sinking as the sucking mud tried to claim them.
He had no war-gear, nor scars on his face, but he didn’t seem to be a trader either. His fingers were clenched and he was pumping his fist.
Why was he anxious? She was no threat. He wouldn’t know that she was a Mercian princess married to a Northumbrian prince, a guest here and paying her way by doing her share of the chores.
All he would see was a woman washing clothes in the estuary where traders came and went and the court of King Redwald welcomed strangers.
A shout rose from where the boats bobbed in gentle resistance against their moorings. The sails that usually billowed had been caught and tied; they looked naked, Carinna always thought, when they were thus subdued. A man came running along the bank, a rich man, she thought, for he had a belly which spoke of plentiful rations, and there were no shiny patches on his breeches. He shouted as he ran, spittle flecking across his beard as he voiced his anger.
“Come back you little shit! Thief! I’ll flay your skin from your back, slave-boy!
The youth glanced at his pursuer, and took two squelching steps towards Carinna. She woke from her torpor, dropped the washing, and stood up. The young man shrugged, as if deciding that he had nothing to lose, and planted a kiss on her lips. As he did so, he pressed something into her hand. He ran off, the older man in noisy pursuit. Carinna watched them go, their feet making boot-prints which instantly vanished as they filled back up with water.
She caught the shouts as they carried on the wind.
“Give it back! Without it, I’ll never get home. And neither will you!”
“No, I won’t, but I’ll be free!”
The young man had not been nervously pumping his fingers; he’d been holding something. Now that object was in her hand. It was cold, hard, like a pebble. Was this what he had stolen? Why would this mean that they couldn’t go home?

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A Poppy Against the Sky

My story, A Poppy Against the Sky, was recently announced the winning story in the HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Society Competition.

His hand is on hers, fingers curling around her palm and encircling it. He blinks, quickly. There is moisture in his eyes and she knows that he is anxious not to let it spill. The breeze, or perhaps it is the downward draught of her exhaled breath, lifts his hair and his brow relaxes. He is cooler now, and the globs of sweat sitting on his forehead will stop tormenting him, begin instead to soothe. She gives him back his hand, stands up and moves away so that he can look, once more, at the sky. His breathing is easier; his chest moves with a steady undulation. A single cloud, little more than a wisp, passes overhead and he lifts his head, neck sinews protruding. Sometimes she thinks he is trying to levitate his whole body, away from the ground, towards the sky. He wants to ascend.

She takes the wooden mazer, running her thumb along the carvings on the rim, shaped for her with love, and tips out the dregs before placing the drinking bowl in her leather drawstring bag along with her herbs and unguents. He has swallowed her infusion of agrimony, and she is pleased. The ancients used it for healing wounds, but Juliana administers it because he occasionally clutches his stomach, and his cough is worsening. She looks skyward as she shoulders her bag. The sun is bright, but lower in the sky. Soon it will be harvest time and then the nights will draw in; there will be dewy mornings. He cannot stay outside when the summer is over.

Too near to ignore, Brother Adolphus is by the edge of the pond, lying down, cavernous sleeves rolled up past his elbows as he leans on one arm while he reaches into the water with the other, tickling the trout. Not much sport, she has always thought, to catch already captive fish. The fish are just there in the holding pen; the monk is showing off by making it look like such an art. He pretends he has not seen her.

A glint on the water draws her eyes into a squint. The monk will think that she is scowling at him. Well, let him. It’s no secret how she feels about him, nor why.

Adolphus sits up, shakes his hand and wipes it on his black robes. The wet fabric does not discolour; it is as if he has made the water vanish. He pats it dry as daintily as if he were at a high feast and using a napkin. She can see, even under his habit, his rounded belly. He stands, returning her stare.

He disapproves of her methods. But the soldier wants to be outside, he craves to see the sky, and seems not to want the monks near him. And so they have made a shelter for him where he can heal under the warmth of the sun, and Juliana can tend him. She walks, deliberately languorously, past Adolphus, wishing that every step could send a rumble through the earth to bruise him.

Adolphus sniffs his disdain. “What have you given him?”

“A brew of agrimony. He must have it morning, noon and night. I will come back later.”

“Folk accord agrimony magical powers; it is against Church law to claim the attributes of deity. Your soldier needs proper medicine. And prayer.”

“Prayer does not work and your medicine does not save everyone.”

He hisses at her. “This too; you show contempt and a lack of reverence.” But then he glances away. And when he opens his mouth to speak, she cannot listen.

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Storms in Summer

“At Mainz the sky shone red like blood for many nights, and other portents were seen in the heavens. One night a cloud climbed up from the north and another from the south and east, and they exchanged bolts of lightning.

They met overhead and fought a great battle.

All who saw this were amazed and afraid and prayed.

Several men gathering in the harvest in the district of Worms were found dead because of the heat of the sun.

Many were also drowned in the Rhine.”

From a chronicler in the monastery at Fulda, AD870

(Tr T. Reuter, Manchester University Press, 1992)

Bishop Paul Discovers a Naked Woman on an Island

In the middle of the tenth-century, Bishop Paul of southern Greece found a naked woman who told him her story:~

She was from the city of Larissa, born of poor parents. When she was orphaned she was taken into the house of a rich man, who, when she came of age, married her to his only son.

The son’s friends insulted him, reminding him what his father had done to him: “A woman of your own social standing was never found for you and he has given you this penniless and low-born wife.”

The young girl, seeing her husband’s humiliation, ran away, taking only the clothes she was wearing, finding a boat and coming to the island. Only later did she realise she was pregnant. She gave birth to a boy, and made swaddling from her clothes.

When Bishop Paul found her, the ‘child’ was thirty, and was naked too. The woman said to Paul: “Every day I have implored God to …send a priest to illuminate my don by holy baptism. And behold, the Lord has not refused my prayer but has sent you, His servant, to fulfil my desire.

[The spiritually Beneficial Tales of Paul, Bishoip of Monembasia, Cistercian Publications, 1996]

The History of English Part II: From Conquest to Printing Press

The first part of my story of English concluded with the coming of the Normans, and a story from the 12th century sums up what happened after the Normans settled. A local priest witnessed a miracle, where after the laying on of hands, a mute man was cured and able to speak English and French. The priest was resentful. Brother William, he said, had laid hands on this man and instantly he could speak two languages, whereas he, the local priest, had to remain dumb in the presence of the bishop. This priest, it transpired, knew little Latin, and no French.

In 1154, the English monks who had written the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (established by Alfred the great) put down their pens. French was the language to speak, and Latin was used for writing and remained the principal language of religion and learning. A visitor from another planet would assume that English disappeared, to be replaced permanently by French.

However, we know this is not so.

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The Early History of English

Here’s a little test: Torpenhow. Know how to pronounce it? Know its derivation? If it helps at all, it’s in Cumbria, and it’s a hill… and its name means hill hill hill. That’s English for you. But why? How did our language become so, well, strange? Or should that be weird? Why do we have so many different words for the same thing, and why does our spelling not even abide by its own rules?

I think the first clue might be that, as historian Ann Williams remarked, “We have little idea about what ‘spoken’ English was like before 1100 – virtually all the surviving texts are written in the literary standard (Standard West Saxon in modern scholarship) which was never a spoken language. The abrupt change in the Peterborough Chronicle in 1121 (pictured below) marks the moment when the scribe ceased to write in Standard West Saxon, and began to write in something like the local spoken dialect.”

And in reply, historian Stephanie Evans Mooers Christelow had this to add: “There is also the fact that people speak the language of their mothers: French men who married English women had bicultural children who most likely spoke English. French soldiers stationed in English towns had to learn English, and the French who resided in English villages did as well. According to the Cambridge History of the English Language, French vocabulary and syntax did not begin to significantly affect the English language until about 1300.”

So, there are two intriguing pieces of information here: a hint at the marked differences between written and spoken language, and the fact that it’s too easy, and inaccurate, to blame all our language anomalies on the Norman Conquest. So where did they come from?

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The Celts – Occupations and Leisure Activities

So far in this series, I’ve looked at the origins of the Celtic People, how they lived and who they were. Now I’m looking at what they did:

While the Celt as a warrior has been the most colourful picture to come down for posterity, warfare was not a full time occupation, and the majority of Celtic people spent most of their time in rural, agricultural pursuits.

There was a great difference between the Germanic tribes and the Gauls, as the former consumed very little wheat and lived mainly on milk and the flesh of their animals.

Cattle were abundant in Gaul, which can be seen from the fact that during all Caesar’s expedition large amounts of livestock were seized.

The cattle in Britain were of the Celtic Shorthorn variety, first appearing towards the end of the Bronze age. Sheep were small, similar to the Soay breed. Wild animals presented a threat, to crops and to life, with wolves, bears and wild cats all still abundant.

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Did the Conqueror Build Upon Existing Foundations?

950 years ago today, the world changed – for those living in England, at any rate. They had a new king, and new masters, and history had a brand new reference point – 1066. But legally, administratively, and ecclesiastically, how much did William change?

William of Normandy was not opposing the old regime in England, he was claiming his right to carry on the government of a kingdom of which he said he was the rightful king. The England to which he came in 1066 was a soundly organised country in most respects. William abolished nothing, and introduced little new; his reign consisted of a successful attempt to fuse old and new, building upon the already existing structure.

The power of the nobility in Anglo-Saxon England was being strengthened from two levels of the social scale. The king gave grants of almost anything that was in his power to give: land, privileges, and judicial powers. From the inferior classes came men seeking the protection of a lord. Here was the beginning of a process which came to be known as feudalism. There were at this time only two aspects: a personal bond between two free men – a superior (the lord) and and inferior (the vassal) – and a method of land tenure, whereby the vassal held a benefice of his lord. The personal relationship entailed the vassal putting himself under the protection of this lord, and in a symbolic gesture of submission he would place his hands between those of his lord and swear an oath of fealty. Under this solemn contract the man was obliged to serve and obey his lord, and the lord was obliged to protect and maintain the man.

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Government in the Reigns of Edgar and Aethelred II

Neither Edgar (959-975) nor his son Aethelred (978-1016) came to the throne free from controversy. Both of them succeeded their elder brothers, who reigned only briefly. King Eadwig (Edwy) succeeded his uncle in 955, while his brother Edgar was declared king in Mercia and the Danelaw. With the existence of two royal courts it seems likely that civil war was not far away when Eadwig died on this day – 1st October – in 959. He had issued so many charters that a degree of irresponsibility is probable, and he had quarrelled with Abbot, later Archbishop, Dunstan and driven him into exile.

Aethelred was Edgar’s younger son, and succeeded his (step) brother Edward when he was murdered at Corfe. Throughout his reign he was never entirely able to escape from the fact that the murder had been committed for his sake.

The youth of these kings produced an environment where faction could arise. Powerful ealdormen could be found influencing politics and the monarch, even changing the face of war, as was the case at the end of Aethelred’s reign.

This then was the political situation over which Edgar and Aethelred had to govern.

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How Cnut Established Himself as Full King in England

Nearly one thousand years ago, in November 1016, Cnut became king of England. How did he establish himself, a foreigner, with full authority?

For a contemporary account of the reign of Aethelred II, it is natural to look to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In it, we find the closing years of the reign fraught with difficulties; those of fending off Danish raiders. It would be easy to agree with the Chronicler who, writing with hindsight, concludes that the slide towards Danish rule in England was inevitable. The payment of the Danegeld might at first sight seem like sheer folly, yet the policy appears in the short term to have worked.

Aethelred’s problem was that paying off one Viking force would not necessarily keep another one away from his shores. The Chronicler blames the military failure of the English on the cowardice of the military leaders. But while the squabble between Brihtric and Wulfnoth caused the loss of a hundred ships in 1009, we also know that Brihtnoth’s actions at the Battle of Maldon in 991 were those of courage and loyalty, that the army of 1009 left in 1010 without tribute, and that Aethelred was assured of the loyalty of Ulfcytel in East Anglia.

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