It is my very great pleasure to welcome historian and historical fiction author Annie Whitehead once again to my blog. Annie’s writing is an absolute joy to read. Her prose is lyrical, and she gets deep into the Anglo-Saxon world in which she writes. Whenever I read any of her stories, I can’t help but feel that I’m sitting in a mead hall. Her characters come to us from the Anglo-Saxon chronicles, and she lifts them from their dusty pages to bring them to life.
Annie has just released her 4th historical novel, The Sins of the Father, which is the conclusion of a two-book series that started with Cometh the Hour. This new offering delivers everything I’ve come to love from one of Annie’s novels. She can’t produce a time travel machine, but she’s given us the next best thing.
Annie joins us today to give us insights into the day in the life of an Anglo-Saxon settlement. Let’s all lift up our drinking vessels and welcome Annie!
A Day in the Life of an Anglo-Saxon Settlement, by Annie Whitehead
Can I take your hand, and a moment of your time, and walk you through a day in the life of an Anglo-Saxon settlement? Are you thinking it will be uncomfortable, and that you’ll be cold and hungry, inadequately clothed? Well, let’s start with you snuggled up in bed . . .
The sunlight wakes you as it comes through the window opening, where there’ll be shutters, but no glass. You might sleep in a curtained area at the back of the great hall, or you might have a separate building to sleep in. In either case, your bed base will have laths of ash wood, and you’ll be warm enough with blankets, possibly furs, and even a pillow or two.
Once you’re dressed – linen shirt, tunic, breeches and leg bindings for the man, linen shift, and a (woollen) kirtle for the lady, plus belts for both and a head covering for the lady – you walk through the hall and you’ll find the loyal companions of the lord in there, perhaps still asleep.
What is your hall built of? Well, it’s made of wood, with upright pillars supporting the roof which will either be visible, or, depending on whether you live in the earlier or later part of the period, might have an upper floor. The roof will be thatched, and that thatch will come down quite low down the outside walls. There might be steps up to the doorway. There are wooden tables and chairs, some of which might have arms, and the crockery will have patterns on it that show which particular area it’s from. Cutlery will be minimal, so you’ll most likely use your hand knife to skewer pieces of meat or cheese. There’s a central hearth where a cauldron might be hanging on a chain.
Outside, if it’s spring, perhaps you’ll see the oxen being brought in by the ox-herd who’s watched them overnight and now gives them to the ploughman for the new day’s work. In summer, the dairy beasts will be milked, and you might have the luxury of some grass-fed beef for your meal later. If it’s autumn, then the harvest might be in and you might see sheaves being brought by cart once they’re dry, stacked outside, with heads to the centre of the rick, which will then be thatched to keep the rain off. You might also detect the aroma of fruit being boiled to preserve it. In winter, you’ll have no fresh dairy produce, but you’ll have leeks and garlic, and food from the stores. There might be a ‘hunger gap’ though between the stores running out and the new spring growth.
What else might you see as you wander the settlement? There could be retting pits, where flax is treated (work generally done outside) or some of the women will be carding wool (work generally done inside). Grain will be ground by turning quern stones, a labour-intensive process which will produce rather gritty flour. Your teeth won’t be blackened from too much sugar in your diet, but the enamel may get worn away by too much grit in your bread!
The carpenter, with his bow lathe, will be turning small objects such as cups, beads, and spindle whorls. You’ll not hear many loud sounds, perhaps the church bell, and the clanging of the smith’s forge. In fact, the loudest noise you’d probably hear at this time would be thunder. Occasionally, some flour dust might explode (it’s highly combustible, as those who’ve read one of my novels will know…)
There’s a famous quote which suggests that this life was ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. Well, yes, if you got on the wrong end of an enemy spear, axe, or sword, or if you got ill, or suffered the effects of famine following drought. But stick a pin in any period up to (and sadly now including) our modern age, and the same is true.
But these were the ‘Dark Ages’ weren’t they, where everything was drab, and everyone was ignorant?
Ah well. Remember those clothes I mentioned? They’d most likely be dyed in bright colours of red, green and blue. The wooden hall was probably painted, and there could well have been richly-coloured embroideries on the wall.
Animal skins were treated, and turned into practical items like saddles and bridles, knife sheaths, sword scabbards, and drinking vessels. But they were also subjected to a slightly different treatment, and stretched thinly on frames, where they were attached by wooden turning pegs. In time, these would become the pages of books. And what exquisite details!
The clanging of the smith’s forge would signify the working of iron to be turned into weapon blades, and household items such as keys, hooks and nails. Yet this wasn’t the only kind of metalwork. Modern jewellers still aren’t really sure how it was done, but garnets cut thinly to sparkle and shimmer, were set into finely worked gold, with no modern tools to help the process.
You won’t be doing that though, because it was highly skilled work. You might help with hedge-cutting, or with the coppicing, or perhaps if it’s autumn you could help knock acorns out of the trees for the pigs to eat.
Speaking of eating, you will have a choice of fresh foods, depending again on the time of year but, more importantly, depending on where this settlement is situated. If you’re by the coast, you’ll have access to saltwater fish and shellfish, whereas if you’re inland, it’ll be freshwater fish from the river.
The courses you might expect include cheese, meat, then fish or vegetables. Alternatively, the order might be meat pudding, cheese, vegetables or stewed meat. If you’ve arrived on a feast day, you can look forward to better cuts of meat (roasted), perhaps pork or beef (from specially fattened bullocks), poultry, game from hunting and fowling, bread made from more finely sifted flour, and of course, there will be alcohol. The lady of the hall will pour the first drink and there’ll be a toast, perhaps the shout of Wes hæl (be hale). You might have wine, beer, mead, or all three!
The scop (musician/poet) will play the lyre, tell tales, offer riddles for people to solve, and there might be dancing, too.
But pace yourself. This feast could go on all night. And I mean ALL night . . .
When you’re ready, I’ll take you home again. But I don’t think you’ll be in a hurry to leave. It might not be the most comfortable chair you’ve ever sat on, and the food might be less flavoursome than you’re used to, but the sense of camaraderie and of belonging that you’ll experience in that mead hall will make you feel that you’ve made friends for life.
Annie Whitehead is a History graduate and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written four novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines and is on the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) Editorial team and is senior reviewer at Discovering Diamonds. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017 and is now a judge for that same competition. She has also been a judge for the HNS (Historical Novel Society) Short Story Competition. Her nonfiction books are published by Amberley Books and Pen & Sword Books.
About The Sins of the Father
A father’s legacy can be a blessing or a curse . . .
AD658: The sons of Penda of Mercia have come of age. Ethelred, the youngest, recalls little of past wars while Wulf is determined to emulate their father, whose quest to avenge his betrayed kinswomen drew him to battle three successive Northumbrian kings.
Ecgfrith of Northumbria is more hostile towards the Mercians than his father was. His sister Ositha, thwarted in her marriage plans, seeks to make her mark in other ways, but can she, when called upon, do her brother’s murderous bidding?
Ethelred finds love with a woman who is not involved in the feud, but fate intervenes. Wulf’s actions against Northumbria mean Ethelred must choose duty over love, until he, like his father before him, has cause to avenge the women closest to him. Battle must once more be joined, but the price of victory will be high.
Can Ethelred stay true to his father’s values, end the feud, keep Mercia free, and find the path back to love?
All Annie’s books (fiction and non-fiction), including The Sins of the Father, are available for purchase through Amazon.
Anglo-Saxon Hall house: https://www.wealddown.co.uk/buildings/anglo-saxon-hall-house/
Edgar from the New Minster Charter, showing clearly the tunic and leg bindings
Lindisfarne Gospels page – Gospel of Luke
The Kingston Brooch, 7th Century (in the book, Queen Ermenilda from The Sins of the Father wears one exactly like this) Attribution Link: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Kingston_Brooch,_World_Museum_Liverpool.jpg
DSCF3204 – Annie Whitehead’s own photo of the reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo Lyre