I’m thrilled to share with you the news of my sequels to A Shape on the Air! The next two feature the same main protagonists, Dr Viv DuLac and Rev Rory Netherbridge, so beloved of my readers. [ http://myBook.to/ASOTA ]
The Dragon Tree is set on the beautiful island of Madeira where Viv and Rory escape a personal tragedy, and it features a 14th century shipwrecked noblewoman and a 16th century rebellious nun. Can Viv solve the mystery of the historical link between them and find peace for herself and the island? [ http://myBook.to/TDT ]
The Rune Stone returns to England and features Viv and Rory’s quiet country churchyard where they discover an ancient rune stone with a mysterious runic inscription. We return also to the Anglo-Saxon Lady Vivianne and Sir Roland. Can Viv bring resolution to Lady Vivianne and harmony to Rory’s parish? [ http://myBook.to/TRS ]
It starts: We can see that throughout history and different cultures, society organises itself into groups and subgroups, usually based on religion or economic standing. In early Anglo-Saxon Britain there were social classes, in some ways similar to our modern understanding of hierarchies, in that there were ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ social classes, but in some ways they were very different from ours today. Anglo-Saxon and Celtic-British settlements were becoming increasingly expansive as the external threats grew. It made sense to band together for security and ‘manpower’. Settlements were headed by the chieftain, or ‘cūning’, from which we derive the word ‘king’. Even where the settlement was headed by a queen (rare!) she was still referred to as the ‘cūning’ in Anglo-Saxon. The word ‘cwene’ (queen) was usually only used for the wife of a king. The heir to the chieftaincy was the ‘ætheling’. Then there were the ‘ealdormen’ (elders) and the ‘thegns’, who were the nobles who were entitled to fight for the king at the head of troops and lead warriors into battle, and thus highly regarded. They often had their own family crests and banners which they fought under … [Read the rest at https://juliaibbotsonauthor.com/2021/06/21/living-with-the-anglo-saxons/ ] and follow the series ‘Living with the Anglo-Saxons’ sessions 2 -7 on food, houses, diet, etc.
(adapted from a guest post originally written for The Magic of Wor(l)ds blog on my book tour February 2022)
A Shape on the Air (#1 Dr DuLac series of early medieval time-slip mystery romances) is really two stories that mirror and intertwine: Dr Viv in the present and Lady Vivianne in 499AD, both with romance to find and a mystery to solve. I can do present day … but 499AD? How did people dress in the 5th century? What did they eat? What were their houses like? How did they live? One of the best things about writing novels set in a particular historical period is the research. I love it!
OK, a novel is fiction, but readers still want to see it as an authority. When I read a novel myself I want to feel I’m learning something correct and authentic, not something wrong or misleading.
It’s the same if you’re writing about a particular location, or, as in A Shape on the Air, a particular concept – here, it’s the idea of time-slip, and whether it could actually happen – and as an author, making the story believable. Could it possibly happen? And how?
For A Shape on the Air, I had a plot involving Dr Viv DuLac slipping back in time to resolve a mystery, so I needed to update my research on the early medieval period and also on concepts of time. Both of these are areas I love to read about, so it was no hardship.
I’d studied medieval language, literature and history at university for my first degree and have always been fascinated by what we used to call the ‘Dark Ages’ (after the Roman rule ended and the early Anglo-Saxon settlements began). It got its nick-name from the lack (darkness) of evidence in archaeology and documents. So, there wasn’t very much researched and written about this period, … until now!
It’s exciting to see that archaeology is now finding many clues as to everyday domestic life in the 5th/6th/7th centuries AD.
And discovering that life was much richer and more ‘advanced’ than had previously been supposed. There is now a growing body of archaeological, geophysical and isotopic evidence to indicate how the people of the 5th and 6th centuries lived: feasting halls, jewellery, imported luxury goods.
Recent excavations have uncovered evidence of large feasting halls (mead halls) as a focal point of the settlements, and analyses of human bones found in the cemeteries attached to these villages have confirmed the diet, as I outlined in a previous post. Osteo-archaeology has also given us an insight into the origins of these peoples as well as where and how they lived.
In Cambridge, 2020, at the Kings College site, another 5th-6th century cemetery revealed rich jewellery including a chest brooch bearing fragments of cloak fabric showing evidence of a sophisticated weave, possibly indicating Byzantine trade, or local craftsmanship learned from elsewhere.
On Salisbury Plain a 7th century burial revealed silver coins, bronze and silver rings, amethyst beads. Gold rings, jewel-encrusted brooches, bracteates (neck pendants) and gold torcs (neck rings) have also been excavated. Another site at Sedgeford in Norfolk, produced evidence of beer-malting, hot-working fire pits and iron hooks for steeping harvested grain in hot water (to aid germination and the build-up of sugars and starches), as well as the remains of cereal grains themselves. There were even finger marks on the mud of the kilns.
So the Anglo-Saxon and early medieval periods are proving to be every bit as rich, culturally diverse and interesting in terms of everyday domestic life as later periods. It clearly wasn’t all about battles and land-grab!
For my novel series, I had to keep up to date with new discoveries and research reports, now coming thick and fast. And what a joy it was – and still is, with my continuing research as new findings arise from the ‘digs’.
However, to some extent, I also had to use my deductive powers to assess what might have been retained from the earlier Roman period, and what might be developing forward into the Anglo-Saxon period So there was a fair amount of both evidence and informed imagination at work as I wrote A Shape on the Air.
My research into time-slip was also fascinating.
I looked again at the scientific theories of quantum mechanics, which sounds a bit like something from Dr Who: the Einstein-Rosen Bridge theory, and worm-holes. Yes, really! They’re all basically scientific ideas about space-time portals through which you could slip from one layer of the universe into another, or from one historic period into another. Fascinating, especially for all those who like fantasy and the paranormal, and yet these are real scientific theories of the concept of time, albeit unlikely to be tested by experiment! Strangely enough, I seem to be hearing those theories quoted so much more these days in the media, for example the lovely Professor Brian Cox. So maybe something out there is catching on!
Time-slip sounds insane, and of course Viv wonders if she’s going mad when she thinks she’s had a dream but brings back a real golden key from 499 AD. And her ‘dream’ is so real she begins to wonder if she’s taken on the identity of Lady Vivianne, her counterpart in the Anglo-Saxon times. Why are their lives becoming intertwined? Why do they need to reach out to each other across the centuries? And, of course, do they both find the love they crave? Well, I’m afraid that you’ll need to read A Shape on the Air to find out …!
I’ve been looking at Anglo-Saxon life in my series of blogs: Living with the Anglo-Saxons, covering social structures, houses, settlements, clothes, food and drink, feasting, health and medicine of the period, and the status of women. There is not a huge amount of hard evidence from archaeology or documents to reveal a great deal about the times. As a writer, I need to use my powers of assumption and imagination from what little we have.
But knowledge is increasing as the Anglo-Saxon period becomes more popular as a research area.
And in January 2021, there came news of a report of an archaeological dig in Overstone, Northamptonshire (further reported in in Current Archaeology 2.3.21, issue 373). The site was being excavated from 2019 by MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) for a national house builder on the proposed site of a housing estate development. An Anglo-Saxon cemetery and settlement was beginning to be unearthed, revealing information about not only defence but everyday domestic life in an Anglo-Saxon settlement. Very rarely has a cemetery and settlement been unearthed at the same site in the same single excavation. The current tally of findings is:
154 burials (many grave goods reflecting status)
42 structures spread over the site (sunken-feature buildings and post-built structures)
at least 3,000 artefacts, including:
75 wrist clasps
15 chatelaines (decorative belt clasps)
Various domestic artefacts such as ‘cosmetic kits’ including beautifully carved bone combs
Fragments of Anglo-Saxons textiles, which are very rarely preserved: these were buried next to metal objects causing them to become mineralised.
The human remains will tell us much about the Anglo-Saxon diet and health as well as their origins (very exciting in terms of information about migration!) and the artefacts will show us more about everyday life of the times.
I’m looking forward to further analysis of the finds and new learning on this fascinating historical period … The Anglo-Saxons!
Incidentally, evidence of Bronze Age burials in three round barrows were also found at the site, radiocarbon dated back as far as 2000BC.
Anglo Saxon women: peace-weavers or shield-maidens?
I was interested to catch up with Kathleen Herbert’s excellent little book “Peace-Weavers and Shield Maidens” (2013, first published in 1997) on the image of women in early English society. She begins by commenting that people often tend to think of ‘English life’ as dating from 1066 whereas the first account of the ‘English’ (the ‘Anglii’, a Germanic race) was in Cornelius Tacitus’s ‘Germania’ in 98 AD and they worshipped a goddess, Nerthus (among other gods). As an aside, I’m not so sure about the 1066 bit – I would have said that people do tend to think of the Anglo Saxons from the 5th/6th centuries as the original ‘English’, despite the fact that before those migrants hit our shores the population comprised mainly Britons and Celts.
However, the stories and legends focusing on women, Herbert suggests, tend to fall into two archetypes: we might call them peace-weavers and shield-maidens. Herbert argues that women did fight and lead troops in early history, but were also literally and metaphorically peace-weavers, often through expedient marriages to form alliances with other kingdoms to avert potential strife. This seems to have been a widespread tactic to retain peace. Women might also be shield-maidens, literally or metaphorically as strategists in times of conflict. The two terms might well be interlinked and overlapping.
This is not to say that there weren’t violent battles for supremacy of a geographical region, that new kingdoms were not formed through victory in war. Of course, we have evidence of many battles leading to changes in power across different regions. But we also have evidence of deals and negotiation to co-exist.
Britain was composed of many small kingdoms, and kingdoms fought to take over other kingdoms and thus wield greater power over a larger region. But our theories of this time of great change are beginning to recognise the way that stable everyday life and the quest for peace were also significant. Hence, in my Dr DuLac Anglo-Saxon time-slip series (#1 A Shape on the Air and especially its #3 sequel, The Rune Stone, coming out soon), I have Lady Vivianne (early 6th century ‘cūning’ or king/queen) as “peace-weaver”, although her husband is a fighting warrior. Her elevation to respected status over other kingdoms, and especially that of the Icelings in The Rune Stone, is to all intents and purposes that of honorary “warrior”, a status almost always used for men who were normally the fighters, but this is as a result not only of her strategising but also of her peace-making abilities.
Yes, the term “peace-weaver” was often used for women who brought peace between two kingdoms through marriage, but it was also used for women who were more active on their own account in the forging of peace between kingdoms, as Lady Vivianne is depicted as undertaking in my series. These female leaders could be strategists, not necessarily fighters joining battle; they could be mainly working for the defence of their kingdom: active peace-makers. These were leaders whose warrior status was conferred not by fighting but by directing. Annie Whitehead (in Women of Power, 2020) refers to a saying about Ǣthelflaed, the10th century Lady of the Mercians and daughter of King Alfred, who strategized battles to take Derby, Leicester, York, that she was a “man in valour, a woman in name”. So, to all intents and purposes we can take Lady Vivianne as one who, like Ǣthelflaed, is a brave and courageous ruler; she is a true “cūning” and “peace-weaver”.
Read about Lady Vivianne and her present day counterpart Dr Viv DuLac in A Shape on the Air at http://myBook.to/ASOTA
In the last blog, I looked at what we know about food and drink in the Anglo-Saxon period. In many ways it might seem to us today that the Anglo-Saxon diet was healthy: no sugar, no fast foods, no ready meals, no additives, no processed foods – all the things dietitians and nutritionists are concerned about these days. So we tend to make assumptions based on our 21st century perspectives of a ‘healthy diet’ or ‘unhealthy foods’. We don’t have the Anglo-Saxon perspective on this!
The paucity of skeletal evidence from bio-archaeological or osteo-archaeological findings make it difficult to assess disease and chronic illnesses of the period. Our assumptions might be that there was lower incidence of obesity, heart disease, cancers because the diet consisted for many people of fresh fruit and vegetables, cereals, fresh meat and fish (although the latter two were more prevalent in the diet of the higher status Anglo-Saxons). And we might assume that this would lead to an increase in dental health, average height, increased recovery rate from infections. But without documentary or widespread archaeological evidence it’s hard to make generalisations.
We do know that there would have been a reliance on seasonal fresh produce because preservation was hard, which could be a problem if the harvest was affected by climate or major weather systems and this would be a vulnerability for Anglo-Saxon settlements. For example, there is evidence of a major volcanic eruption in the mid-530s which caused significant climate change, cold, darkness, ruined harvests. The resulting famine, hunger and starvation, would result in increased disease and deaths. We also know that there was a significant pandemic of bubonic plague in 541-2. Although this may not have been caused by diet it would certainly have ramifications on food production and availability.
The lack of food preservation techniques would exacerbate this vulnerability. There were few means to preserve perishable foodstuffs, apart from drying, smoking, and salting. Salt became such a precious commodity that some might be paid in salt, and social status was marked by how near or far you sat from the salt at feasts (‘above or below the salt’ was a common expression, being ‘below the salt’ indicating lower status). Foods such as fish and meat would be encased in salt for preservation, but it was also used to mask the taste of bad food.
Rotten perishable food was a significant health risk, but it was arguably not entirely widely recognised in this period. We think that it tended to be thought that it was the taste of bad food that was the problem, rather than the bacteria in rotting food. So, as a result, the Anglo-Saxons were keen to disguise the taste of bad food with salt, herbs and marinades. There would have been a significant risk of illness from food poisoning, from meat from cattle that were carriers of disease, and a weakening of strength when physical activity was paramount for the life of the community.
What about Anglo-Saxon medicine? Bald’s Leechbook (9th century) available in the British Library, and other documents, provide some interesting evidence of the way illness and disease was treated in this period. For example, various treatments were advised for wounds, throat infections, skin conditions and some for more serious diseases. Herbs were used for infusions, ointments, salves and poultices (eg an eye salve from garlic), and recipes are given for problems such as nettles for muscular pain. Eating animal liver is cited as a ‘cure for the plague’. The Leechbook suggests a concoction of leek, garlic, wine and bullock’s gall, which was reported in 2015 as a potion that could potentially kill methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)!
A final thought: there is emerging evidence from Anglo-Saxon sites in Cambridgeshire and Kent from the analysis of human skeletal remains for carbon and nitrogen isotopes that suggest diverse diets based on wealth and social status. For example, some studies suggest that higher status, wealthier Anglo-Saxons ate more meat and fish, and lower status people ate more vegetables, and possibly were, in some case, largely vegetarian. This is an ongoing analysis, but it would be interesting to know whether this related to the level of health.
PS Would you like to know more about life in the Anglo-Saxon period? My novel A Shape on the Air is set in 499 AD as Angle and Saxon tribes began to settle in Britain, although of course this happened over the course of several centuries.
Earlier in 2021 I was delighted to be asked to speak to the Leeds Symposium on Food, Drink and Health, which develops learning on these aspects of historical research. My session was, of course (!) on the Anglo-Saxon period. The following is based on some of the research I outlined in the session …
There was a rich mead hall culture in Anglo-Saxon times; the mead hall was where the community feasts were held and was a focal point in the village or settlement. ‘Mead’ was the common alcoholic drink made from honey, widely drunk, and especially at communal meals, thus the hall was named after it.
Literary evidence from the 7th or 8th century heroic poem Beowulf (the dating isn’t clear) indicates the riches of the hall and its decoration: ‘tapestries worked in gold glittered on the walls’, ‘eofor-līc scionon ofer hlēor-bergan: gehroden golde’ (‘boar-crests glittered above the helmets adorned with gold’), ‘māđm-æht’ (‘precious treasures’), ‘bēag-gyfa’ (the treasure-giver, or lord/leader/chieftain/king). The feasting and drinking is emphasised in the poem and many Anglo-Saxon words emphasise the importance of mead: ‘medo-ful’ (the mead cup), ‘medo-benc’ (the mead benc), ‘medu-drēam’ (revelry in mead-drinking and feasting).
There would be entertainment during the meal: a scōp would be employed, the poet/musician who entertained with ‘harp and voice’ (not a harp as we know it), and the poetry and story-telling would celebrate both traditional Christian and pagan heroic deeds and values. These narrative poems would honour and glorify the community and unify the society.
The mead hall was the centre of the pre-Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Saxon village community. It was important as the Witan council, the decision-making meeting, was usually held in the mead hall and often before a feast. Wooden trestle tables were used for eating and could be dismantled or set up easily and quickly for council meetings. It was the focus of village life, eating and drinking together consolidated the stability of the community.
Feasts in the mead hall would be frequent in Anglo-Saxon times, and feast days for the whole community were usually held according to the journey of the moon: commemorating the full moon, new moon, winter solstice, summer solstice, etc.
But the general feasts were not necessarily for everyone in the village. There was a strict hierarchy. The serfs would serve at tables and they and the cooks would eat separately, but they still ate similarly to the thegns, ealdormen and ladies. The ceorls (lower class free men) might be included at table if they held a particular office. But the gebūrs (not in serfdom but keeper of ‘rented’ allotment of land) would not usually be included. The serfs, never.
There would be a ‘high table’ with the cūning/cyning (king/leader), ealdormen and high thegns. At right angles down the hall were the trestle tables for the other nobles. They would be used mainly at noon and evening for communal eating; evening meals in winter were by the light of flaming ‘torches’ in sconces on the wall and hanging cressets filled with oil. There would usually be a huge firepit in the middle of hall.
Whether in the mead hall or in their own houses, most Anglo-Saxons would use wooden bowls, platters and spoons. Everyone had their own knife (a seax or small version of a seax), worn in a leather pouch hanging from their belt at their waist. The wealthier people would have drinking horns for mead and perhaps even glass goblets for wine.
Although there is evidence that the Anglo-Saxons imported dates, figs, raisins and almonds, these would be for the wealthy. But berries and nuts from the hedgerows were plentiful for all. There is also evidence that agriculture changed from primarily arable to grazing land and there would be livestock for meat: eg chicken, cattle, pigs, sheep, ducks. There was often settlement provision and also individual families kept animals for food within their own living quarters: usually pigs and hens, often a cow. So dairy was accessible: milk, butter, cheese, eggs.
Settlements were usually sited near to rivers, for transport rather than drinking as the water was often contaminated (thus beer and ale were popular as well as mead) and fish would be caught, using simple nets, traps and line: trout, salmon, eels, perch, pike and even cockles, scallops and oysters.
On arable land and on the little patches of land next to individual houses, Anglo-Saxons would grow vegetables for the table: leeks (used for health remedies too), beans, peas, turnips, onions. Geburs might rent a patch of land for vegetables.
Arable farming produced spelt, wheat (for bread), rye, barley (for ale), oats (for bread, porridge, cakes). Ancient recipes indicate that bread could be made with ground wheat (flour) and water only, no salt (too precious!) or oil or yeast. Salt was extremely precious because it was the main source of food preservation and often used to mask the bad taste of rotting meat. Herbs were also used for this purpose as well as to flavour and tenderise, for marinades, etc.
There was no sugar, so honey was widely used to sweeten food and drinks (hence honeyed mead). Honeyed bread was a delicacy!
NB further reading:
Ann Hagen (2010) Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink: production, processing and consumption (Anglo-Saxon Books)
Debby Banham (2004) Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England (The History Press)
In the next blog, I’ll be looking at how healthy/unhealthy the Anglo-Saxon diet seems to be …
You might like to read more about those times, a fascinating period of English history, in my novel A Shape on the Air. It’s an Anglo-Saxon time-slip mystery available on Amazon at
The Anglo-Saxon village or settlement consisted of wooden thatched huts, ceorls’ houses, and larger timber halls for the thegns, usually single storey and all grouped around a central mead hall and large chieftain’s hall. In many cases, these could be combined into one large ‘long hall’. The mead hall served as the venue for feasting with huge celebratory banquets, although generally restricted to the wealthy thegns and ealdormen, and as a place for meetings, sometimes referred to as ‘moot halls’ , the moot being the council meeting or gathering where the higher rungs of society met to discuss the settlement’s important matters of defence, judgement and punishment, tythes or food provisions. A large mead hall might contain rooms for the family of the chieftain (or cūning). As the period progressed halls became bigger and more splendidly furbished to signal the chieftain’s power and status. Recent archaeological work has uncovered huge halls for such purposes.
Even the early Anglo-Saxon villages would be fortified against raiders and would have a band of warriors ready to fight for their society’s protection and security. There would be stables for horses, granaries for storing precious grain, and along the dirt roads would be clusters of tradesmen’s workshops often with wooden shelves or counters outside, displaying their wares: the wood-worker, the metal-worker, the communal bakery, the baker, the weaver, the pottery kiln, and so on. When coinage was scarce, trade was often through exchange or barter of goods or services.
Thatched single-room huts of wattle and daub or wood comprised much of the settlement and these were often flanked by small plots allowed for vegetable growing for the family’s own use (the precursor of our gardens) and middens for human sewage – which proved invaluable for manure to fertilise the vegetable plot!
Gradually the Anglo-Saxons moved away from their pagan heritage and by the 6th century were embracing Christianity, partly through missionaries from Rome or Celtic lands, and simple timber churches could be found in settlements, often adopting pagan sites such as burial mounds, sacred wells or standing stones as their locations.
By the later period, the 9th to the 10th centuries, we might expect to see the wide development of village churches, still often timber built which didn’t survive the ages, but which later developed in size, architecture, building materials and adornments as the period continued. Many village churches of today bear evidence of their Saxon and Celtic origins, perhaps where they were built in stone (rare) or reveal a Saxon cross in the churchyard.
NEXT TIME: Anglo-Saxon diet and health …
For more about Anglo-Saxon life, my Anglo-Saxon/present day time-slip with mystery and a touch of romance can be found at:
What would an Anglo-Saxon ceorl’s house look like?
The image above gives you some idea – they would be wooden and thatched, which is why so little from that time has survived.
A ceorl’s house was basic with few adornments, unlike the homes of the wealthy higher classes, and would have looked to us more like large huts or barns. Indeed the animals would share the room with the family. Ceorls were ‘freed-men’ and often were in charge of a portion of fields or livestock. The family’s own animals, bred for food or milk, were housed at one end of the house for winter shelter: a goat, a cow, a sheep.
The house would measure around 10 metres by 5 metres with wooden floors which could be covered with fragrant herbs. The walls were of upright planks of wood slotted together or of wattle and daub. There were window openings, but no glass, and a central hearth for cooking. There was no chimney and often no hole for the smoke to escape, so the living quarters would have been very smoky and unpleasant especially in winter when the animals joined the family indoors. The roof would be thatched and blackened by the smoke. Bedding would be perhaps a large bag stuffed with straw or wool if the family had sheep to shear.
The family’s table would be a trestle arrangement that could be easily taken down and stored between meals. Food would need to be hung high in the roof, away from predators. They would eat whatever they could acquire from their animals, mainly chicken, pork, beef and lamb, their small plot of land for vegetables, and the hedgerows for berries. Their diet would be fresh as there were few ways of storing: salt was precious for preserving meat, for instance, and ice-houses only for the wealthy. They would drink ale rather than water which was often contaminated. Wine was rare in a ceorl’s house but frequently drunk in the chieftain’s hall. Bread made from spelt, rye or oats, could be baked in communal basic ovens. There was little sugar in their diet and skeletal remains show good dental health. For a sweetener they used honey from their own or communal hives, and this is one of the main ingredients of the favoured alcoholic drink of mead.
Water for washing and cooking could be collected in pots from the stream or village well, if they were lucky enough to have one accessible. The ceorl’s home would have a small plot of land outside the building for vegetables for the family’s use, and nearby a ‘midden’ or primitive toilet area, the contents of which would be used for manure on the vegetable plot.
For more, you may like to read my novel A Shape on the Air, an Anglo-Saxon mystery time-slip, set in the present day and 499 AD grounded in detail on domestic life of the time, available at