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
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 Roman occupation of Britain during the early fifth century AD began to disperse when Honorius requested the return to Rome of the legions and administrators. The remaining Romans who had intermarried with Britons and Celts, along with the ‘native’ ethnic groups with existing settlements across the countryside of England, strengthened their fortifications against marauders from north of the border. It seems that they had already established organised groups or small ‘kingdoms’ (I won’t call them ‘tribes’ which seems to me to connote primitivism) which were then strengthened and extended, possibly with settlements joining into larger groupings.
These ‘pre-Anglo Saxon’ kingdoms developed gradually as Angle, Saxon and Jutish migrants from northern parts of Europe headed increasingly for Britain, perhaps for land, crops, climate. From around 450 AD, the Anglo-Saxon-Jute communities began to grow, bringing with them their heritage and culture.
We have long perceived this time as mysterious, dangerous, even barbaric, as ‘invaders’ fought brutally to gain land from the indigenous peoples. The idea, long held, was that as the glory of Rome had gone from our island with the withdrawal of the legions, the British had no defence against the invaders, and that eventually the indigenous ‘tribes’ were overcome and suppressed by the brutal Anglo Saxons. One version has it that the threats to Celtic-British communities or small ‘kingdoms’ led Vortigern, High King of the southern Britons, to call upon Angles, Saxons and Jutes from overseas to help quash the Picts and Scots who threatened his land.
The threat from the north appears to be real but the actions of Vortigern, and indeed his very existence, is disputed. Brutish Anglo Saxon invaders, or migrants who, by and large, integrated relatively peacefully into Celtic-British society? What’s your view?
By the way, the photograph at the top of this post is the original inspiration for the third in the Dr DuLac series, The Rune Stone. It’s called locally, the Saxon cross, but it bears evidence of earlier Celtic influences and suggestions of a very early Celtic/Anglo-Saxon settlement can be detected in the village.
The ‘Dark Ages’: barbaric, primitive, brutal, murderous? People illiterate, uncivilised. Tribes of Angles and Saxons marauding, hacking their way across Britain and cruelly wiping out the native Britons and Celts, slaying all in their path? Dark dangerous days after the Romans left; everything crumbled, decayed, ruined?
In the first of my Dr DuLac series, A Shape on the Air, one thread in Viv’s narrative is the notion that the ‘dark ages’ tend to be misconstrued as primitive, that the ‘dark ages’ are only dark because we know little about them from the relative paucity of surviving evidence and artefacts. As a specialist in early medieval language, literature and history, I am excited by the idea that this historical period wasn’t primitive and barbaric, but in fact refined with a rich culture from its Roman, Briton and Celtic heritage – and indeed from rich foreign trade. Gold, jewelry, embroideries, tapestry wall hangings, crafted utensils, glass: the feasting halls of the chieftains would have glowed with wealth.
Let’s look at the more recent discoveries about the world of late fifth century Britain, for example the site near Lyminge in Kent, where an early feasting hall has been unearthed and evidence revealed of a good and settled domestic life. The Romans left us with not only an engineering and building heritage but also a cultural one. I am also intrigued by the exploration of the bronze age settlement at Must Farm in the fens, dating from long before the setting of my story, yet revealing a sophistication of crafts, utensils, clothing, domesticity and foreign trade all of which I am convinced would have become a surviving part of the British psyche. Both Lyminge and Must Farm discoveries are mentioned in my story.
So, archaeological evidence is at last beginning to emerge and we have new and exciting tools to discover more. Domestic archaeology is also beginning to indicate that sites were occupied and developed long after Romans began to leave, and that there was continuity of occupation/population (eg Lyminge, Mucking, Barton Court, Orton Hall, Rinehall, West Heslerton, to name a few). Artefacts and building use suggest that there was a much more gradual change post-Roman occupation and during the migration of new waves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, rather than a period of decline and sudden brutal invasions. Hence there was a slower cultural shift towards a settled British society. Of course, this is not to say that there weren’t any bitter inter-tribal battles going on for land acquisition, and between local chieftains for power supremacy, nor that there wasn’t deep suspicion of the Angles and Saxons by the native Britons and Celts.
But the ‘modernist’ view is that there was much more mingling of Romano-British society than previously thought, through inter-marriage with Romans who remained after the Roman troop withdrawals, and a similar intermingling between Britons and the immigrant Angles and Saxons.
This view of gradual change and evolution from immigration and settlement, rather than sudden brutal change from invasion and suppression by Anglo-Saxon marauders, is one advocated by (among others) Professor Susan Oosthuizen (The Emergence of the English 2019). She offers some fascinating insights into evidence from documentary, archaeological, and landscape studies and her emerging view is that the ‘dark ages’ were not so dark, barbaric and brutal as we had previously imagined.
So perhaps it’s time to ditch the ‘Dark Ages’ title. So what can we call this post-Roman pre-Anglo-Saxon period instead? Some academics use ‘early medieval’. Oosthuizen uses the term ‘late antique’ for the period 400-600AD (with ‘early medieval’ for 600-850AD). What do you think?
Where did you get the inspiration for the book/series?
To be honest, my ideas come into my mind pretty much unbidden. I’m constantly curious about people, relationships, history, things around me, and I read and research a great deal, but of course it takes a lot of imagination to develop the ideas into a viable story. In the first of the Dr DuLac series, A Shape on the Air, I wanted Dr Viv to have a troubled relationship, to have a traumatic experience that would lead to a time-slip and a deep connection to another woman in the distant past. The idea for A Shape on the Air came from my interest in early medieval history which was my first research field, the post-Roman, early Anglo Saxon era, commonly called the Dark Ages. I’d been reading recent research, mainly archaeological stuff, that supported my view that it wasn’t so ‘dark’ in the sense of barbaric fighting, invasions, and brutality, but that it was actually marked by richness and diversity. I am also very interested in the concept of time and I’d wanted to write a time-slip for ages – but then you have to think, how could it actually happen to normal people in their everyday lives?
Do you write using pen and paper or on a computer?
I write on my computer so that I can easily edit as I go, but my research notes and planning notes and graphs are usually the old pen and paper, and post-its everywhere. I have a pinboard beside my desk and I fill it for the novel I’m currently writing, with pictures from the history I’m writing about and inspiration for characters. For example my inspiration for Dr Viv is a pic of Rachel Weiss (looking elegant and thoughtful) and Rev Rory is James Norton in the role of Rev Sidney Chambers (gorgeous!). And there are lots of pics of early medieval banqueting halls (mead halls), Anglo Saxon warriors and ladies, a dark ancient mere, and the prototype of Viv’s apartment which is actually somewhere I once lived just outside Oxford.
Who is your favourite character out of your stories and why?
My favourite character is always the one I’m writing at the moment! In A Shape on the Air, I loved Dr Viv/Lady Vivianne (traumatised by Pete’s betrayal/Sir Pelleas’s brutality) and Rev Rory/Sir Roland (a hunk but also sensitive and caring), but I was especially fond of Tilly/Tilda who is very sweet and such fun I really enjoyed writing her.
If you were a character in your story, which would you like to be?
I think it would have to be Lady Vivianne because I guess 499 AD would have been an exciting time to live in, caught between the Roman world and before the Anglo Saxon era was properly established. It was a time of change and uncertainty but also an opportunity for making your mark. Women were respected as part of the leadership of communities and Lady Vivianne holds her own in difficult circumstances. And I think she’s a good person with the interests of her community at heart. Although she was brought up as the daughter of the king/chieftain, she is not arrogant or entitled; she wants a more equal world.
How and why did you choose the names for your main characters?
I started with Lady Vivianne. The names Vivianne, Nimue, Nivian etc are the names associated with the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend (which is important in the story) and I had to choose a name that could translate to a modern equivalent, hence Dr Viv. Likewise Sir Roland which was a common name in English and French medieval legend, and then Rory came from that. It was the same for all the other characters in the two time periods. I deliberately didn’t choose totally authentic pre-Anglo Saxon/Britonic names because that wouldn’t have worked with the dual times and additionally, they would have been more difficult to read! It was a conscious decision to approximate a modernisation of historic names. After all, I’m writing characters who are from different ‘tribes’: Briton, Celtic, Roman, Angles, Saxons!
What are your future plans as an author?
I’ve written the sequel to A Shape on the Air and it’s set in Madeira. It’s provisionally called The Dragon Tree. Again Viv has a traumatic experience, so you can guess what that leads to! It is a time-slip/dual time story and goes back to the 14th and 16th centuries on the island which were fascinating times. I’ve also written the third in the Dr DuLac series, The Rune Stone, which returns to my favourite early medieval mystery. It involved a lot of research into ancient runes which was fascinating. Moving house in between lockdowns created a hiatus for me (so much to do and hard to concentrate) but I’m now starting a new novel, Daughter of Mercia which has cross-overs to the Dr DuLac series. For the moment, I want to stick with early medieval/Anglo-Saxon time-slip mysteries, as this has become my identified author brand. But who knows …?
On a cold, darkening winter’s afternoon, in a little country churchyard less than 100 years ago, the churchwarden and the gravedigger sadly collected their tools and prepared to bury their rector. However their spades struck something hard and unyielding.
What they found was a medieval stone cross shaft with the distinct carving of a warrior bearing a shield in his left hand and a long sword or seax in his right hand across his abdomen.
They eventually managed to raise it and it still stands today in the churchyard close to where it was found, on a modern plinth.
The current elderly churchwarden remembers his father telling him when he was a young child about his discovery. Someone had told him it was a 9th or 10th century Viking carving, but when I look carefully at it and compare with the Repton stone, below (courtesy of the Derby Museum) which depicts King Aethelbald, 8th century Christian king of Mercia, who is buried in the crypt at Repton church, it seems to me to replicate this very closely. Of course, Repton was the great centre of the reintroduction of Christianity into the midlands in the mid 7th century through the baptism of the Mercian royal family of Peada, an ancestor of Aethelbald. So Aethelbald would have had a strong connection to the Christian communities of this region of Mercia. It begins to figure …
Could this be an Anglo-Saxon cross shaft with Aethelbald’s image right here in our little village churchyard?
The top of the cross has never been found. I wonder whether it would be the typical celtic-style early Christian early Anglo-Saxon cross and circle?
We can’t dig the churchyard for the remains of the cross top because of the many graves there. But what an intriguing mystery! Is this Aethelbald?