From Chaucer to the Spaghetti Tree: How We Still Hunt the Fool

Telling someone that their shoelaces are undone when they’re wearing slip-ons is a bit old hat, but it never fails. Ah yes, today is the prankster’s day: April Fools’ Day.

A strange celebration that is neither uniquely English nor modern. Versions of Fools Day are found in Sweden, Canada, Iran and Switzerland, as well as other countries, although not all are celebrated on 1 April. Spain has their prank day on 28 December. But the jokes – slapstick, silly or other types of practcal japes – are on an equal footing. News reports on television or newspapers are the best, simply because there are so many gullible sorts who fall for them. The real ‘April Fools’.

One of the most famous, and best of these, was the story run by the BBC in 1957. A serious documentary programme called Panorama, ran a three minutes piece about the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest. There was film footage of a family collecting spaghetti from trees and explaining how the mild winter had helped make the harvest a bumper one. They also discussed the pests of the spaghetti tree, the spaghetti weevil. The programme had the air of authority and authenticity by having a well respected narrator, Richard Dimbleby, provide the voice over.

I was not born in 1957, but I wish I had seen that first-hand. Hundreds of people rang the BBC to ask where they could get spaghetti trees from. Can you imagine that: your own spaghetti tree in the garden. Genius.

The roots of April Fools’ Day are spread deep and wide. Chaucer mentioned thirty-two days after March in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales where a cock is tricked by a fox. This has often been argued that he means 1 April, although not all historians agree. However, April Fools existed long before Chaucer in the Middle Ages.

The Medieval Feast of Fools was held on 28 December, the same date that the Spanish keep nowadays, and the Romans had a similar festival on 25 March called Hilaria. As I mentioned in my blog post Why January 1 is a Confusing New Year (1 January 2013), new year has been celebrated on different dates. It has been suggested that those who saw in the new year on 1 January mocked those ‘fools’ who celebrated on other dates, notably the week long festival that began on 25 March. At least it didn’t end up as a brawl.

And so today I am lucky that I am not in school teaching because the ‘Your shoelaces are undone’ really is wearing thin now. Then again, I could teach the history of the spaghetti tree. Maybe next year.

When the Day Darkens: Eclipse in History

Well, we all had a grand time on the day of the partial solar eclipse (20 March 2015). As fair weather members of an astronomy club, we knew all about the event and arrived at the clubhouse in the forestry centre at 8.20 am.

There was a stunning collection of telescopes all pointed at the sun. There were also – thankfully –  a lot of home-made devices ranging from colanders, tin foil and cardboard to intricate plastic contraptions. There were information posters and how to look safely at the event as well as those explaining the phenomenon.

Unfortunately, for me, there were no posters telling us about eclipses in history. Well, that’s my job isn’t it?

People were very aware of the skies throughout history and many eclipses have been documented. Even before writing came about we have seen drawings of strange things in the sky. Maybe they were eclipses or perhaps aliens or UFOs. However, when writing was the method, references to the darkening sky are everywhere. What has changed through time is what we attach to eclipses and other celestial events. Nowadays most of us do not think that an eclipse is an omen or a message from God.

That said, many historians have used the reports of eclipses to try to date significant events. The solar and lunar eclipses (as with much of the heavenly bodies) are cyclical so we can pinpoint when eclipses occur. Three of the Gospels in the New Testament claim that the sky darkened when Jesus was crucified, although one Gospel does not mention it.  We know that there was a partial lunar eclipse over the Middle East on 3 April 33AD. Given that Jesus was crucified around the time of the Jewish festival of Passover, which is during the full moon, this could be the one. A solar eclipse cannot happen during the full moon phase. The nearest full solar eclipse was on 24 November 29AD, but this does not tie in with Passover. Other historians have argued that a lunar eclipse would not have been visible at that time of day so there must have been another reason for the darkness, such as clouds or a storm.

Eclipses were mentioned in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. “Here, the event is linked to Earthly events: “the Moon was as if it had been sprinkled with blood, and Abp. [Abp. denotes “Archbishop”] Tatwine and Beda died and Ecgberht was hallowed bishop.” The reference to blood was to the copper colour phenomenon that sometimes happens during a lunar eclipse, which also links to the blood of death. This happened on 24 January 734.

On Christmas day 828, the Chronicle says: “In this year the Moon was eclipsed on mid-winter’s Mass-night, and the same year King Ecgbert subdued the kingdom of the Mercians and all that was South of the Humber.” Again the link was made between events in the sky and on Earth


In Gulfyrian I used an eclipse to denote the death of one of my main characters. I had done my research, though, although there may be a bit of poetic licence involved too. 15 November 654 was the date of the eclipse, but I’m not sure if it was visible over the area of the battle. I’m also not sure if the battle was fought in 654 or 655. But I’ll go with whenever the eclipse was. It serves as an omen after all.

Blog Award!


My History blog has today been awarded the Real Neat Blog Award.

I am very honoured and would like to thank  Petrel41, whose blogs are of great interest to everyone, for nominating me.

As part of the acceptance of the award I have to answer seven questions. My answers are in italics.

My seven questions are:

  1. Where do most visits to your blog come from? The UK, closely followed by the USA.
  2. What is your favourite sport? Archery.
  3. What has been a special moment for you in 2014? Visiting Athens for the first time.
  4. What is your favourite quote? “One day I will find the right words and they will be simple.” Jack Kerouac.
  5. What was your favourite class when still at school? English, without a doubt.
  6. Anything you had wished to have learned earlier? Nothing I can think of…
  7. Whatmusical instrumenthave you tried to play? Clarinet.


My nominees are:

Belle and Candle


The Many Worlds of Char


The World According to Ryland

Why Red has Always Been Hot

There is one in every class and friendship group. The one who is ridiculed for being ugly, weak, odd or soul-less (according to the American TV show South Park at least). And people can get away with such ‘banter’ because the victim’s flaw is not based on his race, faith or any acceptable disorder. He is…the Ginger One.

It is the last of the prejudices that has not been deemed unacceptable. Anyone who has red hair is fair game to being the butt of jokes and cast as the undesirable or stupid character in films and TV – and definitely not the one who gets the girl.  While women are praised and admired for their unique locks, men, by contrast, are not thought to be in the attractive department.

Fashion photographer and video director, Thomas Knights, claims that he grew up with negative attitudes to his colouring. There were no male role-models to challenge his perception and he grew up feeling ashamed of his gingerness. Some of the modelling agencies he worked with had no red haired men at all on their books. He has taken on a project to show that the red haired man as ‘the ultimate alpha-male’. He put on an exhibition of photographs and videos of handsome redheads in London last year and the success of this has led to Red Hot, an exhibition in New York City which opens today ( There is also a book of hot ginger men that includes actors, sportsmen and models.

Knights aims to show the gingers as beautiful, chiselled and proud men. But, as an historian, I wondered how this peculiar attitude came about. Is it because the redheads are a non-racial minority, perhaps? Or is it the fault of Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver?

There has been some debate among scholars about whether Judas Iscariot actually did have red hair or if the many paintings of him in medieval art were simply trying to distinguish him from the rest of the apostles. Why they chose red instead of, say, yellow, is another matter.  However, an Aramaic translation of Iscariot is ‘red’, so perhaps he was a ginger after all. In any case, records have shown that redheads have been accused of witchcraft throughout the witch hunting era and whether they linked that to the Judas gene is unknown. Being different was enough.

Despite these definitely dodgy beginnings, there have been some powerful, noble and (allegedly) handsome gingers. One of the most famous is, of course, King Henry VIII of England. He was big, strong, sporty and the epitome of masculinity. There are many portraits he himself commissioned that display his flaming red locks. As king he would have served as the perfect role model and his effect on the ladies is legendary.

Another perfect English king was Richard the Lionheart, who reigned from 1157 to 1199 and his birthday is on 8 September. The Victorians had a statue made to remind everyone what the standard of the perfect Englishman should aspire to. Honourable, fair, brave and highly cultured, Richard wrote poetry and music as well . His skills as a military leader were used as a force for good during the Crusades as England fought for Christianity and tried to win back the Holy Land.  Richard the Lionheart was described as having hair that was reddish-gold and was his mother’s favourite in spite of having a bad temper.

Ah, the temper. The idea that red, flame-haired people also have a hot temper endures today. Throughout history the stories of fiery ginger monarchs have persisted.  William II, also known as Rufus, meaning red, was one, along with most of the Plantagenet kings such as Henry II who was said to be very handsome. Forty per cent of Scottish people carry the gene, and this adds to the stereotype of bad tempered redheads as well as Scots. Scary stuff.

Evidence suggests that the ancient Thracians were blue-eyed redheads: this means that the legendary Spartacus was also a ginger. Maybe that temper was the thing that drove him to rebel against the Romans. Mostly though, gingers are to be found in Western Europe with variations from golden reds in Scandinavia to coppery reds in Celtic peoples.

But does the word ‘hot’ only refer to their temper? I think not. As in today’s modern English slang, ‘hot’ has lustful connotations. Always has done, apparently. Jonathan Swift in his novel Gulliver’s Travels says “It is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity.” The idea that redheads are highly sexed is backed up by a study in the nineteenth century by Lombrosso and Ferrero. They said that red hair was associated with crimes of lust and 48% of ‘criminal women’ were redheads. Make of that what you will.

One of my favourite gods, Thor (Thunor in Anglo-Saxon) was traditionally a fiery ginger. And as my spouse has the red persuasion, although, like Thor, not so ginger any more, I shall say no more about it other than red is hot and history provides the proof!

Picture is of actor Michael Fassbender,source default permission.

When Edmund Found His Match: a Martyr’s Two Greatest Defeats

This is not a story of football. The Great Heathen Army was a Viking force that came from the north and landed in East Anglia. The king, Edmund, was killed on 20 November in 869. The evidence comes in a couple of lines from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and says simply: ‘here the army rode across Mercia into East Anglia, and took winter-quarters at Thetford; and that winter King Edmund fought against them, and the Danish took the victory, and killed the king and conquered all that land’.

And so that may be that. Except the traditions of storytelling give us a much more colourful tale.

Edmund came to meet Vikings with wonderful names. There was Ragnar Hairy Breeches (the same Ragnar in the television series Vikings), Ivorr the Boneless, Halfdan Wide-Embrace  and  Ubba. Some say that Ragnar arrived by boat having been blown by a storm to the Norfolk coast. Once here he tried to learn the Saxon ways of hunting and was murdered by the king’s jealous huntsman, Bjorn. His crime was discovered and was punished by being cast out to sea in his victim’s boat, without a sail or oars. God was to decide his fate. Bjorn ended up at the home of Ragnar and his sons recognised their father’s boat. They tortured Bjorn until he said what had happened to his father. Bjorn lied and said that Ragnar had been killed by King Edmund of East Anglia. So, of course, Ivorr, Halfdan and Ubba raised their armies to seek vengeance of Edmund.

Other tales say that Ragnar had been raiding in France and crossed to England only to be captured by King Alle of Northumbria. Here the Viking was thrown into a pit of vipers and was bitten to death. Whilst singing his death song he called out “How the little pigs would grunt if they knew the situation of the old boar!”

His sons went on to East Anglia and King Edmund met his death in an unidentified location  known as Haegelisdun, after he refused the Vikings’ demand that he renounce Christianity. Edmund was shot with arrows and then beheaded on the orders of Ubba and Ivorr the Boneless.

Edmund’s head was thrown into the forest. His body was found but the head was missing for a while until those searching heard a voice calling “Here, here, here!” They followed the voice and found Edmund’s head, guarded by a grey wolf. Stories vary as to whether it was the head or the wolf calling, but it is impressive either way.

As for the Great Heathen Army, they went on to pillage (well, they were Vikings after all) East Anglia before moving on to Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria.  Edmund’s shrine became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites at Bury Saint Edmunds until it was destroyed during the Reformation in 1539.

A great army, a great header, pillaging, marching and then smashing up a shrine. This is not a football story: this is a martyr’s story. Edmund had been patron saint of England for five hundred years. Then George took over in the mid 1300s. Two really heavy defeats, I’d say.

Why St. Patrick’s Day Invokes My Fear of Red Shoes

I used to be afraid of red shoes.

​I was quite young, about six or seven, but something about the brightness of the colour red sent an almost religious fear through my budding soul. It should not be on the feet. The part of the body responsible for moving us about should not be sullied by red.

It’s not that I dislike the colour – on the contrary. I chose it as the main colour on this site after the dark background to represent the Dark Ages and the mystery of the forests. No, red is a colour of life, passion and energy. So why do I have this irrational fear?

The truth is that I don’t know. I saw someone yesterday wearing red shoes  and the immature fears emerged again. The panic fluttered in my heart. But the lady looked very nice in her co-ordinated outfit with no sign of the devil driving her forward. The good news is that I managed to conquer my fear and avoid an impromptu exorcism. Now I just experience a small panic attack.

As Saint Patrick’s Day looms, on 17 March, it set me to thinking about leprechauns. These were small magical folk from the old Celtic beliefs who, like the Anglo-Saxons, thought that elves existed and could use their magical powers to serve good or evil. The original Irish name for these figures of folklore is “lobaircin,” meaning “small-bodied fellow.” They were known for their trickery, which they often used to protect their much-fabled treasure.

However, the link here with my red shoe thing is that their job was that of shoemaker. They mended all the shoes of the elves or fairy folk but were often grumpy. Well, who wouldn’t be doing that job. In mythology, the little people would often swindle their customers while they were trying on their shoes. So perhaps it was a leprechaun who cursed the very first pair of red shoes I tried on when I was a child. I can remember it clearly. My mother was very enthusiastic about these shiny red shoes, but I had a sudden shudder of fear. ‘No!’ I cried, ‘I need the black ones!’

And the black shoes took all my fear away.

By the way, leprechauns have no connection to Saint Patrick other than their shared link to Ireland. Like the shamrock, which was a sacred native plant symbolising rebirth, leprechauns have been adopted to celebrate all that is Irish. I have my own ways to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. I polish my shoes.

Why a Dark King Cannot Have His Day

I am a Pisces. How does that make you feel? To some that makes me a dreamer, indecisive, creative and lazy. To others – a nutter who believes in mumbo jumbo.

A couple of thousand years ago, when a baby was born, the alignment of heavenly bodies was noted and celebrated annually: hence the birthday. In Anglo-Saxon times when Christianity was the new faith, to mention astrology was a sign of being pagan. So it followed in those early Christian days that to celebrate birthdays was pagan.

Dates of deaths were recorded, however. What this means for us in the twenty-first century is that to apply a commemorative date for someone from the Dark Ages we have to use their date of death. If they were good Christians (prayed regularly and were known for at least one good deed) they would become saints when they passed on. Therefore, their date of death became their special holy day. So far so good.

But what if you weren’t such a good guy?

Then it’s back to remembering the day you met your maker. As I keep saying, I am no fan of death-days and yet again here I am doing just that. (See my post Why I Find it Difficult to Commemorate the Dead) If only Oswiu had been a good guy.

He was a pivotal figure in the history of history England and features in two of my novels (Gulfyrian and Teon).  As king of Bernica and then Northumbria, he had plans to rule over all the English kingdoms. The king of Mercia, Penda, had other ideas though. And hereby lies my dark tales…

His brother, Oswald, ruled before him and was killed by Penda in a very brutal fashion, in 642. The Mercians thwarted Oswiu’s attempts to become overlord of the English kingdoms over many years until finally he defeated and killed Penda in 655. Before this, however, Oswiu was rumoured to have been involved in assassination plots and underhand dealings. He married often and gained territory as reward. Nice man.

Oswiu will probably be remembered for fixing the date of Easter. The Christianity in England during the seventh century was of the Celtic variety and this was the way the Northumbrians liked it. Oswiu, being a true politician, realised that Rome had the most influence and decided to call the synod of Whitby to declare that Northumbria would fall in line with the pope in Rome. His people, including his Kentish wife, were not a bit happy with this. But he knew which side his bread was buttered. From then on, the rest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms  followed suit. Until a big guy called Henry VIII changed everything, that is. But even he kept the dates of Easter the same as Rome.

So if the King of Northumbria had been as good a Christian as his brother, instead of being a manipulative, scheming weasel, 15 February would be Saint Oswiu’s Day. As it is, the 15 February is simply the anniversary of his death.