But Is It Authentic?

A sort of conflation of ideas whizzing about today.

A conversation about 17th century re-enactment over on Facebook – about being too authentic, becoming intimidating, becoming contemptuous of those who don’t count stitches, or who use wool-blend fabrics. Now for myself, as an author, I consider re-enactment as research for my writing and vice versa. Thomazine’s snapped stay-bone in Imperfect Enjoyment – I’ve done that. (I still have the scar, too: I had to wear the things for the rest of the day, and it didn’t half bleed.)

I haven’t belted anyone in the face with the guard of my sword, but I have considered it. I digress.

And I admit it: I’m one of the stitch-counters. And what I find is increasingly it fills me with a horrible inertia. I have linen to make s new jacket, but I need silks to embroider it. Embroidery silks aren’t good enough: I need silk thread. I need metal spangles. I need – I need – I need.

And till I have, I do nothing.

Actually, I made a conscious decision with my polychrome coif, and my spangled jacket – not to make them period-correct, but to make them touchable, holdable. Hundreds of pounds worth of metal spangles on a jacket, and I’m going to let strangers pick it up, stroke it, hold it up, try it on? Or keep washing my coif after a couple of hundred grubby little fingers have stroked the ladybird or opened the peapods? But that’s what they’re for – to be touched and delighted in, not just admired from a distance. That was what the originals were for: to be worn and used and to give pleasure to their wearer as well as the people who saw them.

It’s the same with my new wardrobe: I want wool, I want silk, I want…I want to not start till I have all the things, rather than to use things I have that are not quite right.

My first thought in the authenticity debate was that it’s necessary, because what’s it for, otherwise? But I’m not sure now. I think it’s more the desire of the moth for the star, than a desirable outcome. I think I could spend my whole life not wanting to do better, but wanting to do nothing. Waiting for the perfect set of circumstances – all the aces, metaphorically, in my hand – before the time is right to do anything at all.

And then you get to be dead, and all the time is used up, and it’s never happened. That book half-written in your head but never started, that jacket you loved…all gone.

Carpe diem.

Sartorial Shufflings: 2

So, you know.

Old goth + autumn wardrobe crisis = on the whole, wtf??

I don’t – my previous publisher will testify – go in much for the public engagement. (You do talk a lot of nonsense on that Facebook apparatus, mind -R.) So jokes about having an authoring hat like Terry Pratchett notwithstanding, I tend not to have A Look.

Except I think I may be beginning to.

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The vintage gloves I’ve had for a while. The hat is based on a 1930s pattern, drafted by me with help from the New Vintage Lady’s blog. It started as an homage to her Dustbowl Hat and then it got… As previously stated, I’m just under six feet tall and conspicuously cinnamon. I don’t do understated.

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You’re looking at the hat,not the rosacea. Not that you would be so rude.

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It’s a sort of wild mongrel of 1960s hippy chic embroidery and 1930s pared-down elegance.

And I think I might be liking that look….

Random sartorial pondering

It’s autumn, and with the autumn I always start to look critically at my wardrobe.

(That, and we’ve booked a trip to Paris in October. You can’t go to Paris looking like a rat’s ass. They wouldn’t let you in.)

So I’m a redhead. Tall, built like a Valkyrie, the sort of shoulders and backside you get from hefting a sword and riding horses and beating cakes. (Yes, Het Babbitt, but taller.)

Wispy slips and dinky prints do nothing for me then. It’s got to be full-on, in your face, you were going to look anyway kind of thing. I’d love to be able to carry off wispy and romantic but I’m just shy of six feet tall. Tisn’t happening.

I always wear trousers. (Should I ? Well, that’s another story, gentle reader, isn’t it?) Usually flats – see above – and I usually have a big sensible handbag that’s full of books and iPads and pens and competent junk.

I’d like to be glamorous_ really I would, she says wistfully.

So – deep breath +- let’s go.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (Except In Oliver Cromwell’s House)

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In my wanderings throughout the internet I came across this splendid gem on a website called “The Foods of England”. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if it were true?

“There is a curious story that roast veal in Orange Sauce was Oliver Cromwell’s favourite dish, and that when no oranges were available, his wife Elizabeth used beans instead, saying something along the lines of “You should have thought about orange sauce before you declared war on Spain.” This tale is told at Cromwell’s House in Ely, in ‘Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine’ by William Carew Hazlitt (1902) and may originate in a spurious little cookbook titled ‘The Court and Kitchin of Elizabeth, Commonly Called Joan Cromwel, the Wife of the late Usurper, Truly Described and Represented’ published in 1664.”

This cookbook was originally written by triumphant Royalists with a perverse sense of humour, intended to show Elizabeth Cromwell up as a frumpy provincial housewife, more fitted to life on a backwater country estate than at Whitehall – and just as a by the by, this was published in 1664, and she died in 1665, so I hope she thought it was as funny as I did. I love the idea of the Lord Protector of England’s foreign policy being dictated by what his wife wanted on the table, though. And oranges, believe it or not, are quite popular in 17th century cooking, although normally with capon or fowl rather than veal. Perhaps Mrs Cromwell didn’t like chicken?

The Good Huswife’s Jewll for the Kitchen (1594) suggests that Mrs Cromwell should… “take red wine, Synamon, Sugar, Ginger, the grauie of the Capon, or a little sweet butter: slice an Orenge thin, boyle it in the stuffe, when your Orenges be tender, lay them vpon your sops, mince some of the rynde and caste on the sops, and so serue them.”

To boil a capon with oranges, after Mistress Duffield’s way, …“take a Capon and boyle it with Veale, or with a mary bone, or what your fancie is. Then take a good quantitie of that broth, and put it in an earthen pot by it selfe, and put thereto a good handfull of Corrans, and as manie Prunes, and a few whole Maces, and some Marie, and put to this broth a good quantitie of white wine or of Claret, and so let them seeth softly together: Then take your Orenges, and with a knife scrape of all the filthinesse of the outside of them. Then cut them in the middest, and wring out the ioyse of three or foure of them, put the ioyse into your broth with the rest of your stuffe, then slice your Orenges thinne, and haue vpon the fire readie a skellet of faire seething water, and put your sliced Orenges into the water, & when that water is bitter, haue more readie, and so change them still as long as you can finde the great bitternesse in the water, which will be sixe or seven times, or more, if you find need: then take them from the water, and let that runne cleane from them: then put close Orenges into your potte with your broth, and so let them stew together till your Capon be readie. Then make your sops with this broth, and cast on a litle Sinamon, Ginger, and Sugar, and vpon this lay your Capon, and some of your Orenges vpon it, and some of your Marie, and towarde the end of the boylin”

There’s also a thickened version of Mistress Duffield’s recipe in the same recipe book, using egg yolks to thicken the sauce into a sort of Christmassy custard. I’m happy to say that Robert May in “The Accomplish’t Cook” gave a much plainer and simpler recipe: “Take slices of white-bread and boil them in fair water with two whole onions, some gravy, half a grated nutmeg, and a little salt; strain them together through a strainer, and boil it up as thick as water grewel; then add to it the yolks of two eggs dissolved with the juyce of two oranges.”

On the other hand, there’s mutton with lemons.
When your Mutton is halfe boyled, take it vp, cut it in small peeces: put it into a pipkin, and couer it close, and put thereto the best of the broth, as much as shall couer your Mutton, your Lemmons being sliced verie thin, and quartered, and Corrans, put in pepper grose beaten, and so let them boyle together, and when they be well boyled, season it with a litle Uergious, sugar, pepper grose beaten, and a little sanders, so lay it in fine dishes vpon sops. Jt will make three messe for the table.
This version sounds a little less – festive, sorry Oliver – but in the early 17th century (and earlier) sanders, ie sandalwood, was used for colouring rather than flavouring. It’s red, but I’d be inclined to replace with a little saffron, just to give it that slightly aromatic, musky taste.

So – apologies to the Lord Protector, but I’m with Elizabeth on this one. A much better use of oranges can be found:
Take your orenges, and lay them in water a day and a night, then seeth them in faire water and hony, and let them seeth till they be soft: then let them soak in the sirrop a day and a night: then take them forth and cut them small, and then make your tart and season your Apples with Sugar, Synamon and Ginger, and put in a peece of butter, and lay a course of Apples, and betweene the same course of apples, a course of Orenges, and so course by course, and season your Orenges as you seasoned your Apples, with somewhat more sugar, then lay on the lid and put it in the ouen, and when it is almost baked, take Rosewater and Sugar, and boyle them together till it be somwhat thick, then take out the Tart, and take a feather and spread the rosewater and Sugar on the lid, and set it into the Ouen againe, and let the sugar harden on the lid, and let it not burne.

And failing that, you can always use them to make marmalade – after all, everyone in the 17th century knows of the aphrodisiac properties of marmalade, don’t they?

….And A Wilderness of Sin

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And so we’ve seen our garden at Escot and it was… a nettle-filled ditch – damp and draggled and rank.

Except it wasn’t.

As we pushed the gate open with difficulty against six-foot mugwort and a deeply impressive plantain, it was clear that this was going to be a job and a half. (With period tools, and in blazing sun.)

I’m not sure either of us even knew where to start. One pair of gloves between us, a rake, and a mattock.

On first sight, it looked like a small enough, manageable space – a shaded patch behind one of the thatched buildings, about twenty feet by twelve, fenced off at one end.

Half an hour in, we found another building half-hidden by nettles and a few unhappy, half-throttled beans – a little wattle and daub  structure open at both ends, ideal for composting our armfuls of weeds.

It’s clear what’s happened – that this has been a valued, loved patch of garden that’s just got away from itself, and, tucked away from the public gaze, the staff haven’t had the time to get on top of it.

By the time we had that patch of ground cleared, the chickens were moving in – aided by young Tristan and Wiglaf’s chicken trails of half-ground grain, and Bersi’s experienced chicken-wrangling. And the patch was considerably bigger than we’d imagined, cleared to the soil – bigger, and as the sun hit it, considerably drier. It seemed what made it damp was a nice solid waterproof layer of matted grass.

After six hours of solid clearance, the chickens were our new best friends. We’d discovered a struggling courgette plant – not period, poor lamb, but gasping for air and light under a mat of nettles – and a few unhappy beetroot plants that we rescued and palisaded off from marauding chooks. The beans were liberated, and we’d ordered a new Saxon spade from our blacksmith friend Jarnulf. I had a pouch of valerian seeds from the site gardener.

The six-foot mugwort was no more. (There’s plenty more, in a more appropriate place. Don’t worry.) I was physically restrained from removing the handsome plantain.

Digging on clay soil is bloody hard work.

What we’d thought was a few feet of damp soil for herbs, was a good-sized patch, enough for a kitchen garden. The intention is that we start to put plants in as soon as possible. If we weren’t intending to farm authentically, we’d have put potatoes in to break up the soil – as it is, it’ll probably be mattock time. I console myself that Kim and I will have shoulders like Olympic swimmers by next year.

We need to plant ground cover as well as vegetables, to keep the weeds manageable. We need to fill the ground as soon as we can,to stop the wilderness from creeping back while we’re not there. We need to put chicken-resistant seedlings in.

We’d originally planned a kitchen garden, a herb garden, and a medicinal/dyer’s garden, all separate, but I’m wondering if the Saxon gardeners were brighter than that. I doubt they encouraged weeds any more than we do on their good growing soil, though I suspect they were less proscriptive about it than us. I wonder instead if they companion planted – growing creeping thyme and heart’s-ease and violet, the low-growing herbs, amongst their vegetables on grounds that they keep down the unwanted greenery whilst being useful.

My kale seeds are sprouting. I’ll let you know how successful sweet violet is as a weedkiller, in a few months.

A Garden of Earthly Delights

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There are times when you’re just in the right place at the right time.

It’s a funny thing. You might have noticed but most of me is pretty firmly rooted in the 17th century, almost all of the time.
I occasionally venture into the field of Dark Age re-enactment but it’s strictly domestic: half the time I’d be pushed to tell you what century I’m in, although I could probably tell you what I’m cooking while I’m doing it.
But anyway – I’m possibly less femme when I’m in Anglo-Saxon kit than when I’m in the 1640s, but, you know. That’s where we are.

And as you probably also know, for the last couple of years I’ve been rather idly working on a period herb garden. Which is coming on beautifully, thank you, and I think you’ve probably all heard about the various trials and tribulations of Russell Lovage, who came to me as a little sprout something like seven years ago and has refused point-blank to die on me ever since. (I’m very fond of Russell Lovage – yes, of course that’s why he’s called Russell, he is as grimly indestructible as the fictional version – and he has now rewarded me with a crop of little Lovagelings, most of whom will be going to loving forever-homes over the next few weeks.)
And I thought that was going to be it, that was going to be me swishing decoratively through the lavender bushes in a neat coif and a big skirt stooping to break a twig here and a leaf there, inhaling the scents of clove carnation and balm and considering my still-room….

And then someone asks if the re-enactment group we belong to want to be involved in planning and creating an Anglo-Saxon garden at Escot – Edcott, rather, I might say: the Anglo-Saxon village – to which the answer is HELL YEAH. I don’t love my fingernails that much.
It’s damp, it’s overgrown, it’s going to be hard work. I’m looking at a tray full of heart’s-ease – banwort, to the Saxons, and wild pansy to us now – that would love a new home in a shady wood, and obviously the Lovagelings, they could go feral out there. I’ve got woad seeds – though maybe they need to be renewed: I’ve had them for a while without the room to plant them.
I have visions of enough space to grow strewing-herbs: meadowsweet and woodruff and mint and costmary and probably fleabane to keep our little friends at bay when one is ankle-deep in rushes.
To be able to give our resident herbalist a sufficiency of exotic herbs to physic most ailments: tansy and feverfew for headaches and dill for colicky bellies and the nine herbs of power – Mucgwyrt, Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and Attorlaðe (identified as cockspur grass (Echinochloa crus-galli) by R. K. Gordon; partially defined by others as betony (Stachys officinalis) and Stune, Lamb’s cress (Cardamine hirsuta) and Wegbrade, Plantain (Plantago) and Mægðe, Mayweed (Matricaria) and Stiðe, Nettle (Urtica) and Wergulu, Crab-apple (Malu) and Fille Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and Finule Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Cooking and washing and beautifying herbs – the pot-herbs, marigold and soapwort and nettle for cordage and wrapping cheese -the vegetables, Good King Henry and fat hen and purslane and ramsons, all the forgotten green vegetables that would have heralded spring to people who lived on what they could store and grow.

What it’s not going to be is my lovely, mannered, 17th century herb-garden – which exists and is real. It is an actual thing and I go out and cut things from it to use, and it has lovely things in it like primroses and violets for candying, and gillyflowers for scent. I suspect that the Edcott garden will be a much earthier, and probably swearier place, where a whisper is not the sound of a silk skirt on the gravel but is more likely to be the sound of a grubby small child wondering if parental eyes are still on the ripe strawberries.
(I am told there will be pigs. There will also, I feel, be sage – and this is not an idle threat – the first snout that uproots my Lovagelings is likely to find itself stuffed with an apple and spit-roasted. Just, you know, saying…)

It’s going to be fun, and a voyage of amazing discoveries. That’s all what I’ddo, if anyone were daft enough to give me free rein. Fortunately they’re not or we’d be knee-deep in lovage and mint, and if anything happens at all I’ll be being restrained and encouraged by friends with strong backs and common sense.
Watch this space. No – not that one: the green one, there.