Acorns, crabs and bloody slaughter, or, what did the Tudors do in November?

Calendar page for November with a miniature of a nobleman returning from a hunt, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), Additional MS 24098, f. 28v. Note the force-fed pigs.

Calendar page for November with a miniature of a nobleman returning from a hunt, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), Additional MS 24098, f. 28v. Note the force-fed pigs.

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by the Novemberness of November today. It’s damp and drippy and everything in the garden is dying but the Christmas build-up hasn’t quite started yet, and… bleurgh.
I’ve decided this is the fault of twenty-first century life and if I was Tudor I would be far too busy for Novembery moping so I’m going to jolly myself along by thinking bit about what they would have been busy doing.

When I was writing Five Wounds, which is set mainly in the agricultural landscapes of the north, I was very conscious of how peopled the areas round settlements would have been. These days, farming takes very few people. One man can combine a field that would have taken a whole village to harvest in the past. We might notice the fields change colour from brown to green to golden, but it’s unlikely we’ll have much to do with it. In societies where more people are involved in agriculture, the changing seasons and hence the shifting calendar of agriculture have much more effect on what the people you know are involved in and what’s going on around you.

In a society without refrigeration, canning or air freight, of course, food will also be seasonal, and when the year is going to be shaped not just by the farming calendar but by the religious one, the annual round of festivals will give each month its particular character.

For this reason, one of my starting points for research was the Book of Hours. Books of Hours are devotional books, of which quite a number still exist from the fifteenth into the sixteenth centuries. They are often richly illustrated and, unlike wall paintings which rarely survive undamanged, they often survive as brightly and exquisitely detailed as the day they were painted. What makes them so useful for our purposes is that they generally include a calendar of church feasts, illustrated with full-page pictures representing the months of the year and the activities that were taking place each month. For the Tudors, 1st November, All Saints Day, was the first day of winter. But this didn’t mean farming activity stopped: work went on throughout the year.

Obviously, you have to be a bit careful if you’re writing about the north of England and you’re looking at a Book of Hours from southern Europe – the differing climates can mean different months for activities like harvests and planting. Another source, this time from England, is Thomas Tusser, who was born in Rivenhall in Essex. His ‘A Hundred Points of Good Husbandry’ was published in 1554. It gives rhyming advice for what to do in the garden and fields each month, for example,

‘Set garlic and peas, St Edmund to please.’

-a couplet which shows how the religious and agricultural calendars were intertwined in people’s minds even after the Reformation: St Edmund’s Day was celebrated today, the 20th November.Alongside cutting firewood, the most commonly illustrated activity in the Books of Hours November scenes is the fattening of pigs, by feeding them acorns. Acorns might not be anything other than waste now (unless you’re a squirrel) but in the Middle Ages, ‘pannage’, the right to feed your pigs in royal forests or on common land, was important. You will see people knocking down acorns with sticks, or hooking down the branches to reach them, and either driving your pigs into the forests to rootle under the trees or feeding them in troughs. In one picture the pigs’ heads are held in place over the trough by a yoke, to encourage them to eat as much as possible even when they were no longer hungry. Pigs were an important part of  the rural economy; for some families, bacon would have been the only meat eaten on a regular basis. It was said later on that every part of the pig, ‘everything but the squeal’ was used.Some pigs would be fattened throughout November. Others would meet their end at Martinmas, the feast of St Martin on 11th November.This was the traditional date for slaughter of cattle. It was the time of year when animals were at their fattest but the grass was no longer growing fast enough to feed them. So they had to be slaughtered now, or fed on stored food through the winter, a burdensome expense. The slaughter was followed by feasting as people ate the meat that couldn’t be preserved. At this time of year, there was plenty of other food still available for a feast. In the garden, there would be cabbages and turnips, apples, pears and medlars. The woods would provide walnuts and chestnuts .While the poorer sections of society worked hard at salting and smoking meat from the Martinmas slaughter for the winter, the upper classes could hunt, with a range of game now in season, game birds and animals including hare and venison. The Golf Book of Hours shows a nobleman returning from the hunt. There are two horses in the picture but while he rides one, his servant has to walk, because the second horse is in use for carrying a deer, slung across its saddle.The importance of the job of slaughtering cattle – a job which would have required physical strength – was one reason why battles were so often fought after Martinmas. It’s far easier to drag yourself away from home once the work is done and you know your stores of food are laid in for the winter. One thing that intrigued me about the Pilgrimage of Grace was that the rebels were away from home through the month. I wonder if the women, left at home with the task looming, took the chance of waiting till their menfolk returned even if it meant slaughtering slightly thinner stock, or picked up the poleaxe and had a go themselves.

The British Library, Isabella Breviary. Additional 18851, f. 6v: calendar page for November. The pigs are on their way to market. I think something bad is going to happen to them, also to the cows on the right. I like the way the tall tree in front of the church just has a few leaves left. Mine looks like that too.

The British Library, Isabella Breviary. Additional 18851, f. 6v: calendar page for November. The pigs are on their way to market. I think something bad is going to happen to them, also to the cows on the right. I like the way the tall tree in front of the church just has a few leaves left. Mine looks like that too.

Of course, not everybody reared pigs just for subsistence. Some Books of Hours show pigs being driven to market in the town for sale. So if you lived in a town, November might have been the month when the streets were noisy with herds of squealing pigs being bought and sold. Then imagine how busy a street like the Shambles in York, where the butchers’ shops were, would have been, as all the bought-in beasts had to be slaughtered. These very noisome activities took place not in out-of-town abbatoirs as they do today, but in the very heart of towns, and butchers didn’t just deal with ready-killed carcasses, they were butchers because they butchered.

So, November. Lots of scoffing, but also plenty of gore. We will have get in some serious eating, anyway, before the abstinence of December and the Advent fast begin.

If you want a recipe, we’ll steer clear of the blood pudding and tripe, in favour of roasted crabs.

I used to think ‘when roasted crabs hiss in the pot’ in Shakespeare’s poem about winter meant the crustacea. Actually he was talking about crab apples – little, hard, tart apples that grow wild as well as in gardens.

And why roast them? Well, if you taste one they are mouth-dryingly tart. If you can be bothered to peel them you can use them just like a normal cooking apple, though with more sugar added. But for ordinary Tudors, sugar was in short supply. If you roast them, however, slowly, taking up to a couple of hours, you will find they have turned sweet enough to eat as they are. You can do it on a barbecue, or a baking tray in the oven, and add some cinnamon if you have some.

Happy November!

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It’s all about St John the Baptist – or, how the Tudors celebrated the Midsummer Solstice

The summer solstice was one of the pagan festivals taken over by the early Christian church, aligning it with the feast of St John the Baptist, on 24th June. So by the sixteenth century it had accumulated a lively mix of Christian and pagan meaning.

In town and country, fire was a theme of midsummer celebrations. In both places, people made bonfires and feasted and drank around them. In the countryside these bonfires were particularly valued to protect crops and lifestock. Fires were lit on the windward side of crops and animals, so the smoke would blow over them. In some places, people even drove animals through the embers of the fires.

This may be some actual Tudors round their Midsummer bonfire taken via time machine. Or it may show a recreated Tudor Midsummer celebration at the Kentwell Hall historical re-creation of Tudor life.

This may be some actual Tudors round their Midsummer bonfire taken via time machine. Or it may show a recreated Tudor Midsummer celebration at the Kentwell Hall historical re-creation of Tudor life.

Depending on who you talked to, this might have been for protection against disease – the causes of diseases of animals and plants were not well understood in the sixteenth century, but there was a view that contagion was present in the air – or against witches, who were particularly active on Midsummer. The fear of witches was demonstrated by another aspect of midsummer ritual, decorating houses or wreathing livestock with garlands of particular plants.  A seventeenth century writer remembered green birch being hung on all the local signposts. John Stow, who wrote about London, describes,

 ‘every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St John’s Wort, Orpin, white lilies and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers.’

Some of these plants had powers which were thought to be associated with their religious symbolism. St John’s Wort is often associated with the sun because of its bright yellow flowers. For Tudors, however, it was connected with St John because its leaves were flecked red with the blood of the martyred saint. So it was particularly important at Midsummer and cattle wore wreaths of it on their horns, or had their cowsheds decorated with it. Another protective plant was trefoil, because its three-part leaves suggested the Holy Trinity. I imagine the white lilies Stow mentioned took their power from their association with the Virgin Mary – they are still called Madonna lilies.

However, for some people, the importance of midsummer festivities wasn’t about magic, it was about community. Rich people would provide cakes and tubs of ale for their local poor in their town or village, or feast their friends and ‘more civil poor neighbours’, as one rich man did in Long Melford in Suffolk. Sometimes money was left as a bequest for this purpose. Thus Midsummer was a chance for Christian charity, for socialising, and for neighbours at odds to make up. John Stow explains the meaning of ‘bonfire’ thus (bonus=good in Latin):

‘These were called Bone-fires, as well of amity amongst neighbours, that being before at controversie, were there by the labour of others reconciled, and made of bitter enemies, loving friends’.

Actually, in some places fires were lit of bones, giving off dark and reeking smoke – a fifteenth century monk inveighed against it, and against the custom in some places of setting a cartwheel alight and rolling it down a hillside (another ritual with obvious pagan roots, the wheel representing the sun).

Of all the Tudor midsummer activities, though, the activity that must have taken up the most time and money was the Marching Watches, or torchlit marching processions. In big towns these must have been spectacular. In London one is recorded as including four thousand marchers. There were Morris dancers, giants and pageants, which were only sometimes religious – despite the fact that this was meant to be a religious festival, they were just as likely to be mythological or historical. To give you some idea, the 1521 Lord Mayor’s Guild in London put on five pageants: The Castle of War, The Story of Jesse, St John the Evangelist, St George and Pluto. They were all carried on platforms and the Pluto pageant included a serpent that spat fireballs. There was also a model giant called Lord Marlinspikes, not to mention morris dancers and naked boys dyed black to represent devils. Giants were popular, as were dragons and pyrotechics. In 1541 the Drapers’ Guild procession including a dragon that burned aqua vitae in its mouth and in Chester there were unicorns, camels (model ones, we assume), hobbyhorses and sixteen naked boys.

It was, of course, expensive. But at times of political tension, gathering so many people together (some of them presumably drunk) could also lead authorities to fear civil unrest. In 1539 Henry VIII banned the London Midsummer Watch on the pretext of saving money, and it did not return until 1548. We can only imagine how people felt about that…

 

 

(For further reading, see:

Alison Sim, Pleasures and Pastimes In Tudor England

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars

Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England

Margaret Baker, Folklore and Customs of Rural England)

 

 

 

Sugared rose petals – and other lovely Tudor things to do with roses

2014-06-09 15.13.31The hedgerows are covered in wild roses at the moment.

Unlike hybrid tea roses which are a bit tough, wild roses are excellent for eating. Using roses in cookery has gone out of fashion in England in the last few hundred years, though thanks to their being more common in Middle Eastern and North African cookery, you can get rosewater at Lakeland and in many delis. The Tudors, of course, were big on eating flowers, partly for colour and flavour but also because of their ‘virtues’.

‘Virtue’ meant the particular healing or health-giving properties that many plants were believed to contain. These could be physical or psychological. Books, called herbals, listed the virtues of different plants. The idea of foods being medicinal or healthy makes sense to us but it sometimes tipped over into the magical. It wasn’t just plants that had virtues – precious stones could have them too, and a jewel that was thought to have lost its virtue might fetch much less money than one that still had power, say, against epilepsy, or to protect in childbirth.

Anthony Askham‘s Little Herbal, written around 1550, gives this recipe for ‘melrosette’. If you’re interested in Elizabeth I, you might also like to know that Anthony Askham is believed to have been the youngest brother of Roger Ascham, who tutored Princess Elizabeth in Greek and Latin from 1548-50. So while Anthony was writing down recipes, Roger was giving grammar lessons to the future queen.

I’ve updated the spelling but left the language exactly as it is. See? You can follow a Tudor recipe! Easy!

‘Melrosette is made thus. Take fair purified honey and new red roses, the white ends of them clipped away, then chop them small and put them into the honey and boil them meanly [ie for a little while] together; to know when it is boiled enough, you shall know it by the sweet odour and the colour red. Five years he may be kept in his virtue; by the roses he hath virtue of comforting and by the honey he hath virtue of cleansing.’

In other words, the virtue will last for five years. ‘Fair purified honey’ just means normal honey, as far as we’re concerned – it’s a reminder that in the Tudor kitchen or stillroom, things came in different states and you might have to do a fair bit of work on an ingredient before it was ready to use!

 He also suggests several different recipes for a sugar rose syrup. Here is the simplest:

‘Syrup of roses is made thus. Some do take roses dight [done] as it is said and boil them in water and in the water strained they put sugar and make a syrup thereof.’

And another:

‘Some do stamp new roses and then strain the juice out of it and [put] sugar therewith, they make syrup, and this is the best making of syrup. In winter and summer it may be given competently to feeble, sick, melancholy and choleric people.’

‘Melancholy’ and ‘choleric’ mean something more than just ‘sad’ or ‘irritable’. They relate to an idea which dominated Tudor medicine, that people’s health was governed by four ‘humours‘. The humours, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, needed to be in perfect balance, and their relative quantities in your body made you a certain type of person, melancholy, choleric, sanguine or phlegmatic. Personally I think this rose syrup would be nice on ice cream or rice pudding but please don’t feed it to anyone sanguine or phlegmatic – there might be awful consequences… Notice he also specifies that you can eat it in winter or summer. Askham was an astrologer, so he would have known that you had to eat things at the right time of year, as well as being the right type of person. Tudor nutrition was complicated….

The problem with these recipes from our point of view  is that they need a LOT of rose petals. I don’t have old-fashioned roses in my garden and I didn’t want to go and strip all the local hedgerows, so I’m going to show you sugared rose petals, which you can do with just a few, and with no risk of sugar burns. There are Tudor recipes where you dip the rose petal in boiling syrup, but this works just as well.

You need:

rose petals

Not this sort of rose.

Not this sort of rose.

egg white

white sugar (granulated or caster)

a small paintbrush

small scissors

First, gather your rose petals carefully. I didn’t wash mine because it had just been raining so I dried them by gently pressing them between two layers of kitchen roll. You have to make sure not to bruise them, because they’ll turn brown.

Petals drying on kitchen roll

Petals drying on kitchen roll

Then use the scissors to trim away most of the white part from the base of each petal (this part is tough and tastes bitter). Spread some sugar out on a plate. Paint each rose petal with egg white, then dip or sprinkle it with sugar until it’s completely covered. Leave to dry overnight.

They are crunchy and ridiculously delicious, like very delicate sweets. I used mine to decorate my daughter’s birthday cake, because she’s nine and that’s her idea of the height of sophistication.

Of course, in Tudor England they would have been pretty sophisticated, because sugar was a luxury item. For this reason, the people we have to imagine using these recipes are wealthy women, who would have learnt sugarcraft as girls and carried on making sweetmeats and preserves even once they were in charge of a whole household with several cooks. And while flavours like this are very good at evoking the sixteenth century, we’d better not forget that sugared rose petals were something most ordinary Tudor people would never even have tasted!

 

Delicious. And all gone.

Delicious. And all gone.

 

Falconry and the Tudors

Calendar page for July with a miniature of a nobleman going hawking, with haymakers behind him, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Brtish Library Additional MS 24098, f. 24v - See more at:

Calendar page for July with a miniature of a nobleman going hawking, with haymakers behind him, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Brtish Library Additional MS 24098, f. 24v

My novel opens with a scene on a hillside, where my heroine, Nan, is hoping to see her young merlin falcon make its first kill.

When I put the first few pages up for critique in my writing community, I had a reaction I didn’t expect. ‘I’m confused about the family. How rich are they? They seem to live in a big house so why does she have to hunt for food?’

Good question. So I’m going to devote this post to falconry, because it’s one of these areas where the Tudors are just very, very different from us.

In 21st century England falconry is a very niche hobby. (The only person I know who does it is my plumber, who flies Harris hawks.) Judging by Youtube it’s mainly practiced by middle-aged men in khaki combat gear. In Tudor England it was huge, and cut across all ages, genders and social classes. If you were poor, a goshawk could help you feed your family. If you were rich, a beautiful, big and rare bird could be a status symbol to help display your wealth, provide you with sport, and secure  you another interesting dish to serve at your table, not because you couldn’t afford to buy meat but because ‘Have some plover, I caught it myself!’ is fun in the same way as we get a kick from ‘I grew it myself.’ One of my favourite details in C.J.Sansom’s fantastically well-researched Tudor murder mystery Sovereign is the elderly lawyer who lives in a York townhouse with a goshawk, which he will have taken out to the fields at weekends to hunt with.

There’s a famous hawking treatise in an early printed book called The Book of St Albans, supposedly written by Dame Juliana Bernes, prioress of Sopwell Priory near St Albans in 1486. This gives a list of suitable birds to be owned by people of different ranks. It starts with an emperor – eagle, vulture and merlin, works its way down through an earl (peregrine falcon), lady (merlin) young man (hobby), poor man (tercel) and priest (sparrowhawk) and ending up, famously, with ‘a kestrel for a knave’, or servant.

Actually, the list wasn’t meant to be serious. (Apart from anything else eagles aren’t particularly effective birds for falconry and nobody ever flew vultures…) There’s a letter from 1533 (September 26th, Sir William Kingston to Lord Lisle) that says ‘The King hawks every day with goshawks and other hawks, that is to say, lanners, sparhawks and merlins’ – none of them suitable for a king according to the list! What it does show us, though, is that anyone might hunt with hawks and there was a wide variety of birds used. Some will have been more expensive, better hunters and cooler-looking than others. I like to think of a bunch of Tudor noblemen comparing new falcons the way modern people compare their new gadgets like phones. They’ll have argued about which birds were best (‘Merlins? They’re rubbish! You want to get hold of a saker!’) They’ll also have compared their bits of falconry kit: the falconer will have worn a thick leather gauntlet, sometimes richly decorated, to protect his or her wrist from the bird’s sharp claws, while the hawk will have had a hood, a bell and strips of leather called jesses to tether it by. In 2013 a Norfolk metal detectorist found a vervel, a tag for identifying the hawk. It was silver-gilt with the arms of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who was married to Henry VII’s sister – we don’t know whether the tag fell off, or whether he lost a bird that day. Either way, someone might have been in trouble – silver-gilt isn’t cheap, and some birds were valuable, especially once they were trained – James IV paid £3.10s for a goshawk.

The Harris Hawk. Cool-looking but definitely not Tudor. Photo by Alan Vernon.

The Harris Hawk. Cool-looking but not Tudor. Or medieval. Or Arthurian. Photo by Alan Vernon.

Incidentally, if you see falconry portrayed on tv and film, what you’re usually seeing is a Harris hawk. Harris hawks are big and hence look good for the camera, and they’re among the easiest and cheapest birds to get or train. But they’re American. You can imagine what the falconers who watched the 2013 tv adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s fifteenth century novel The White Queen thought about that.

So how did you train a bird? What was the basic process?

You would start with a young bird, taken from the nest – people will have made money climbing trees and taking fledglings to sell. As the bird learned to fly you would make sure it always came back to you by rewarding it each time, letting it fly slightly further each time, first on a tether and then freely, until you were confident enough that it would come back, that you would let if off the leash. It was important to judge the bird’s diet correctly so that it was hungry enough to want food, or it might fly off. You then needed the bird to learn to hunt without it ever realising it could just fly off and fend for itself. So it had to associate bringing prey back to you with being rewarded. Sometimes a lure was used, with meat attached to it, to get the bird’s interest. Sometimes the bird was taken out to hunt with a more experienced, well-behaved hawk, so it could copy what it did!

The hawks had to be used to people, and for this reason people carried them everywhere. At a time when it was the height of bad manners to take your dog into dinner with you, hawking treatises advised owners to keep their birds on their fist at the table. Nuns were scolded by bishops for taking them into chapel. One aristocratic teenager used to keep merlins in her bedroom, where they soiled her gowns. If you imagine your town in medieval times, several of the people you might meet when walking down the street might be carrying falcons, and there’s a good chance there might be a perch somewhere in your house, if you’re not rich enough to have a whole collection of birds in a mews and a proper falconer to look after them.

A merlin. Definitely not rubbish, especially if you like eating partridge. Photo by Just A Prairie Boy

A merlin. Definitely not rubbish, especially if you like eating partridge. Photo by Just A Prairie Boy

The birds caught a whole range of prey, other birds and small mammals, depending on their size. Your goshawk might bring you a hare, or even a heron – remember, the Tudors ate a wider range of meats than we do. Merlins were known for taking skylarks, which was probably more use for its entertainment value than for catching you a decent dinner – they duel impressively high in the sky but you don’t get many mouthfuls out of a lark. However, they were effective hunters of partridges, too.

In the end, it was the advent of firearms that pushed falconry out of fashion, with shooting replacing hawking as a gentlemanly activity. By the seventeenth century, it was no longer part of the fabric of daily life the way had it been for many centuries before.

However, there’s an increasing number of places you can go to see trained falcons. One of my favourites is Bolton Castle in Wensleydale, where the (very cool) girl falconer flies hawks in the castle courtyard, and you can admire the plumage of the other birds in the mews.