Why Our Drinking Habits are Still in the Dark Ages

what the Anglo-Saxons drank

It was beer that brought me to Burton-upon-Trent. My other half landed a good job here in 1996, with the brewing company, Bass. I followed a few months later, we bought a house and two years after that, our daughter was born. So Burton is a very special place to us.

Beer and Burton have always been linked. William Bass opened his brewery in 1777 and a hundred years later, Bass was the largest brewing company in the world. But beer making has existed here for more than a thousand years. Monks at Burton Abbey (founded by Saint Modwen in the seventh or ninth century) were taking advantage of the high levels of gypsum in the water. This brought out the flavour of the hops and nowadays is recreated by adding sulphate. Saint Modwen features in my book Gulfyrian.

So there they were, the monks of the Dark Ages brewing their own beer. The significance of this drink is demonstrated by the fact that buildings were named after it: the Beor [beer] Hall. The Roman, Tacitus, described the drink as “a liquor made from barley, or other grain, fermented to produce a certain resemblance to wine.” We know from recorded recipes that the Anglo-Saxons also drank ale, which was an alcoholic drink but not as strong as beer.

In a climate such as ours in England, it is a little odd to find no record of any alcoholic drinks made from apples. In Germany (the origin of the Anglo-Saxons peoples) there was ‘applewine’ – cider, we presume. But not here in the Dark Ages. It could be that our native apple, the crab apple, was just not suitable for cider making. Towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period sweet apples were introduced from France and cultivated in orchards on a small scale. Interestingly though, the word apple was used to describe any fruit.

The other significant drink was mead. I had the pleasure of trying some of this fermented honey drink last summer. For research purposes, you understand. This was the drink of the nobles and rich folk. Sometimes the great halls were called mead halls as well as beer halls; I am not sure what the criteria was for the difference in the names. Beer was brewed twice to make it strong and was the drink of the warriors. Maybe beer halls were aimed at the fighters whereas the mead hall was intended for the royals alone. More research needed here methinks. Ale was weaker and therefore drunk by the children as water was not always a safe option.

The fourth drink mentioned was the Roman influenced wine. This was definitely a drink of the nobility. The Dark Ages period was actually quite warm and grape vines grew freely in England, but it was still a expensive drink as most arable land was given to growing grain, particularly barley.

How far forward have we moved in terms of alcoholic beverages? Well, my chosen drink for summer is the fruity Pimm’s. But in my bar is also beer, wine and mead.

How dark were the Dark Ages really?

Why Pole Dancing is Good for Us


So I’ve grabbed my tassels and streamers and I’m ready for the pole dance.

​I really look forward to this original style of dancing. I wouldn’t say that I was any kind of expert, however,  but I did win a dance competition in the 1990s, in Leyland, Lancashire. It was for the ‘most unusual dance’. Never won any dance prizes since. But at this time of year I always try to join in or at least witness the pole dancing.

May Day celebrations have taken place for thousands of years, particularly in the northern European countries. Remnants of the old Beltane celebrations still exist, including the Maypole dancing and the selection of the May queen. Beltane was the Celtic and Gaelic festival of summer – bearing in mind the shift of two weeks in the calendar would make a difference to the weather and it was likely that it was quite warm by then, certainly the tree blossom would be out in all its glory. Cattle would be put out to pasture and the Beltane festival would include rituals to protect the beasts from disease, which involved decorating the animals with flowers. The festival  folk also asked the gods to help with fertility of the cattle, crops and people. Incidentally,  it coincided with the Roman festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers and so the customs complemented each other with lots of flowers around.

When Christianity took over, Beltane, like many other pre-Christian festivals, became re-branded as a Christian celebration. In this instance Beltane became May Day – Mary’s Day. Added to the fun was traditional English morris dancing, fetes and craft stalls.There were often visits to wells, which were sacred  and connected to many saints, including Saint Modwen (read about her in Gulfyrian). In modern times there are often parades and home-made maypoles and the dance around the main Maypole that left an intricate weaved pattern of ribbons.  In some places festivities include well-dressings. A May queen is chosen to symbolise purity and youth and she starts the celebrations.

And like all good traditional festivals, Oliver Cromwell banned May Day when England was in its brief state of being a republic. Not that anyone took any notice of that. In the  twentieth century May Day became associated with labourers and was declared a bank holiday in many countries to  honour  the workers.

But whatever the reason, I enjoy the celebrations especially as there involves a holiday in England.  This year I have my own Maypole to dance around, too. I’m wishing for a good summer with lots of flowers, tomatoes and peas. And tassels and streamers.

On the Anniversary of Hillsborough

One of the strangest features of growing older is the perception of time. It only seems like last week that I was taking my toddler to Tower Woods playground to play on the swings, slide and the monkey bars. That toddler is, in fact, about to take her GCSEs and cannot remember our adventures.

And so it is with Hillsborough. I remember every detail I watched on television as if it were last night, even though it was 1989. I was living in Liverpool at the time and was disappointed that I was unable to go to the football match to cheer on my home team. I had been to Sheffield Wednesday’s football ground, Hillsborough Stadium,  the year before for a cup game and remembered that it was a pleasant and hilly place. Hence the name, I supposed.

The F.A. cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was to be televised live. There was a tremendous build-up with experts and former players expressing their views. It was looking like it was going to be a great day.


Like many people, I was not really sure what was going on. There were reports that some the fans who had travelled from Liverpool were delayed. Then there were people on the pitch. I left the room to get a drink. ‘Why do people have to spoil things?’ I sat down again, feeling a little frustrated that the game had been stopped after only six minutes.

It dawned on me as well as the television commentators that this was not a case of hooliganism. What we were witnessing was horrific. Hundreds of people were crushed. Some of these died.

In the years that followed we learned that the deaths of the ninety-six victims, one of whom was a relative of mine, had been victims of more than their injuries. The initial findings from the Chief Superintendent of the police said that the  (mostly young) people had died because they had ‘rushed’ the gate. This has been proven to be untrue. Later reports have shown a great cover-up and falsification of reports. There were ‘multiple failures’ by emergency services and other public bodies, which contributed to the death toll. The Independent Panel in 2012 concluded that forty-one of the ninety-six fatalities could have been saved if they had received prompt medical attention.

The legacy is that standing at football grounds has been abolished in favour of all-seated stadia.The Sun newspaper has lost sales over the last twenty-five years in Liverpool due to a report that blamed Liverpool fans for the incident as well as committing  some unspeakable acts. The boycott still exists. Above all, a great miscarriage of justice has been recognised and has proved that the families of the victims were right all along.

For me, Hillsborough is part of my own history. It has shown me how a city can unite in grief, in strength, in faith. Everyone in Liverpool has been touched by the tragedy in some way. Although I live a few hundred miles away now, I am part of that. It will always feel as if it happened yesterday.

Why Words Matter – and Why They Do Not

Why Words Matter – And Why They Do Not

They tried to do it in the United States. They tried to do it with British school children in the 1960s. In 1897 an Association was set up just to do this: simplify English spelling. Now, according to linguist Professor David Crystal, it will happen in the next fifty years without any intervention.

The problem is, as we all know, that the rules for spelling in English English (as opposed to American English or Australian English, for example) are complex. The reason for this is that the language, along with spelling, has evolved from many sources. The Roman alphabet we use now only became the writing system in the seventh century when the missionaries brought the Latin scriptures over. The peoples before then were mostly illiterate although some religious leaders or nobles could interpret a strange, linear system known as futhorc, or runes. The Celtic and Gaelic peoples on the periphery of the British Isles developed their own languages. Then came the Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavian Vikings, Normans, each with their own culture, words and spellings, and in some cases extra letters too. Add to that dialects that grew from a lack of contact and uniformity and no standardised spelling – there you are – confused.

Like everything else, spelling evolves. Just look at the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. The first time I read Chaucer I wondered what language it was as it was so alien to me. But it was English and after a while I could decipher the words by considering the stems and origins until I believed that yes, it was my mother tongue.

However, according to the linguist Professor David Crystal, speaking at the 2013 Hay Literary Festival, it is not a natural evolution that will ease the spellings, but the internet. Search engines now recognise misspelled words therefore rendering them acceptable. Words such as receipt with the p missing and necessary spelled with an s instead of a c demonstrate that silent letters are on their way out. ​

He said: “The internet will influence spelling. It will get rid some letters that irritate us, the letters that instinctively we feel shouldn’t be there. But it will take time.” He suggests that it will take around fifty years.

Twitter came under fire for the most misspelled words and many people joined the debate on how dreadful spelling and grammar standards are. People write in text speak and children think that this is the normal thing to do because they are only exposed to this way of writing, some have argued.

The interesting point here is that Facebook mainly does not comply with this trend of misspellings and abbreviation. Why is that? Of course people do not communicate on Facebook as they would with a solicitor or potential employer, but it is better than Twitter. The reason is that we simply alter our methods of writing, thus spelling, as we see fit. Twitter has a character limit, which I found infuriating when I first joined. I left after a week or so because I couldn’t cope. Then I went back. Now I use abbreviations and leave off all punctuation so that my character limit is not reached. Likewise, when texting I use as few letters as possible to get my message across. I think I have fat fingers because I hardly ever get the message right first time. txt u l8r. Adequate.

Children, even if brought up texting and tweeting before they can speak, will come to know the appropriate occasions when writing needs to be formal or when ‘text speak’ is acceptable. Shopping lists, texts, essays, application letters are all different forms of writing and often spelling too. (Shop list – T; catfud; looroll…)

The question is whether it matters how words are spelled as long as the meaning is clear. The answer is that it depends on the context. On the whole, I think people know where the borders are. Nobody would expect to read an encyclopaedia in the style of a tweet. I’m not sure if Professor Crystal is right in his prediction of the death of the silent letter. It could go the same way as the comma in addresses, I suppose.

It seems to me that English will come full circle and we will be using runes again one day. As for the silent letters – will anybody notice?

When Feasting Really Works: April – the Month of Feast and Fast


After a week that included Easter, April Fool’s Day and the start of British Summertime, it seems fitting that the Anglo-Saxons considered April to be the month of feasting. At least this is to believed if we go by the Labours of the Months calendar (a picture depicting April is at the top  of the page). Spring, the feast of the god Oestre and then Easter meant that there certainly was plenty to celebrate. The folks would have fasted before the feasting in April. Food was starting to become plentiful with the promise of the summer bounty not far away. Party on.

Throughout history there have been times of enforced fasting, when famines and food shortages  meant that people had very little or no food at all. But this was not the case during Anglo-Saxon times. There were so few people in England then that there was enough food for everyone, even in the winter. The people then salted meat and dried fruits and grain to see them through the barren winter months. Also, famines and bad harvests were relatively rare. So  why did Anglo-Saxon folk fast so much?

People today fast for religious reasons, such as Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims, who fast to be closer to God, for atonement or to exercise self discipline. It is also a reminder of how lucky they are to have food when there are so many poor and starving people in the world. In the early days of Christianity people fasted on Fridays because of the crucifixion,  which was later changed to not eating meat on Fridays. It also connected them to Moses, David and Jesus, who fasted too. Now fasting mostly takes place during the period of Lent, but only for the very devout. Most people I know choose to give up alcohol or chocolate ‘for Lent’. Traditionally, Christians fasted during holy days. There were an awful lot of them, too, but the feast days made up for that!

Many people who do not fast are often concerned with the health benefits of fasting. They are concerned about the well-being of their fasting friends, particularly if they are children. It is thought that fasting occurred even before Christianity in England, so were there any benefits to abstaining from food? There must be something in it, surely, as it has lasted such a long time.

Several studies have been carried out on this very topic. The idea of famine and survival is a popular one in that the human body has adapted to be able to cope with famine. The latest study from the National Institute on Ageing  based in Baltimore, found that one or two days of fasting a week protected the brain from such illnesses as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. They argue that periods of starvation promote neural growth, which aids the memory when searching for food. The study was reported in the Guardian newspaper last September, read more here.

Perhaps the best reason why fasting was such a successful technique is given by Professor Mark Mattson, head of the institute’s laboratory of neurosciences. He said: “We have found that from a psychological point of view…you can put up with having hardly any food for a day if you know that for the next five you can eat what you want.”

The Anglo-Saxons had it nailed. Another reason to dump that Dark Ages tag.

When Hot-Cross Buns Were Banned

Hang them in your kitchen and all of your breads will turn out fine. Take them aboard your boat and you will never be shipwrecked. And if you share them with a friend your friendship will remain strong. They even make you better if you are ill. Mmm…hot-cross buns.

My day started with lovely hot-cross buns covered with lots and lots of butter. Like so many other people, I suppose, they have been part of my Easter tradition all of my life. I cannot imagine Good Friday or Easter without them. Warm with currants, sweet spices and a cross on the top, how could buns offend anyone?

As always in history though, there were times when they were banned. In 1592 a law was passed forbidding the sale of spiced breads unless it was for funerals, Good Friday or Christmas. That’s probably why the buns are related to Easter celebrations as they were eaten by everyone then. Christmas has so many other goodies on offer and who wants to only have ‘funeral’ food?

The connections to healing and superstition were thought to be pagan and Queen Elizabeth wanted to stamp that out. The history goes back a long time, through Celtic and Greek culture and the symbolism of the cross has represented different things. For some it showed the phases of the moon or the four seasons and somehow putting the cross on a bun harnessed the power of nature.

During King James I’s reign another attempt to ban the hot-cross bun took place. But, as with all good or enjoyable things, it served only to push the production of the buns underground. People stopped buying them in markets and from vendors on street corners and simply made them at home. They were only openly consumed during the permitted times but hot-cross buns are far to good to become extinct. The cleverer missionaries realised that the cross could also apply to the crucifixion of Jesus rendering the bun holy.

Of course the restrictions on spiced breads are no longer enforced but the tradition has stuck. Something nice to look forward to besides chocolate. Chocolate Easter eggs. That’s another story…

When the Wicked Step-mother Strikes: Dark Ages Tragedy

When my daughter was small she was a little put out that her parents were married and living together. The reason being that many of her friends had two homes, two bedrooms, an abundance of grandparents and a step-mother.

“You don’t want a step-mother,” I told her. “Step-mothers are wicked.” God forgive me.

And, because I’m an historian, I told her the story of Edward the Martyr. Much more believable than Cinderella, which is a bit of a rom-com kind of fairy tale. So listen up.

Once upon a time there was a king called Edgar the Peacemaker. He married the beautiful Ethelflaeda Eneda, whose skin was as white and soft as a duck’s feather. She bore the king a son, Edward. But the beautiful queen died shortly afterwards.

Edgar the Peacemaker needed another queen to help him rule his kingdom so he remarried, to a lady called Aelfthrith. She also bore the king a son, whom they named Aethelred.

In 975, King Edgar the Peacemaker died. The wise men of the kingdom, the witan, had to choose a new king. The king’s first born son, Edward, was thirteen years old, but he was an admirable youth. But some nobles said that his mother was not a lawful wife. So the new king had to be Aethelred. He was very, very young and was unready. After much arguing and squabbling, it was decided that Edward would be king of the English.

The wicked step-mother, Queen Aelfthrith, hated Edward because he became king instead of her son. She plotted to have him murdered and have Aethelred crowned.

One day, on the 18 March 978, the royal party was hunting in the forest near the mound of the palace at Corfe. King Edward became tired from the hunt and left the party to take some refreshment and rest. As he passed by the palace gates, the queen came to him, greeted him with a kiss and sent for a cup of wine. While he drank, his wicked step-mother gave a sign to one of her servants who came forward, drew his dagger and stabbed Edward in the back.

The king yelled in pain but managed to spur his horse in an attempt to escape from his vicious step-mother. But he was in a lot of pain and could not manage to stay upright on the horse. He slipped from the beast’s back and his leg caught in the stirrup. King Edward was dragged along the ground, his head banging on the floor and blood seeping from his knife wounds in his back.

King Edward died, aged sixteen.

Queen Aelfthrith sent out her men to follow the King’s bloody trail and retrieve the body. Some say that Edward was burned before she ordered his body to be buried in Wareham Priory, but not in holy ground or with any royal ceremony.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says:  “No worse deed for the English race was done than this was, since they first sought out the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God exalted him. In life he was an earthly king; after death he is now a heavenly saint. His earthly relatives would not avenge him, but his Heavenly Father has much avenged him.” It does not mention who the killer was. Henry of Huntingdon says that King Edward was killed by his own people. Florence of Worcester, that he was killed by his own people by order of his step-mother, Queen Aelfthrith. Modern historian, Frank Stenton, argued that Edward “had offended many important persons by his intolerable violence of speech and behaviour. Long after he had passed into veneration as a saint it was remembered that his outbursts of rage had alarmed all who knew him, and especially the members of his own household.” In other words, someone in the family. Like his wicked step-mother.

In reality, Edward’s death was the result of a power struggle brought about by the monastic reforms Edward’s father, Edgar, had made. But for my daughter, he died because he had a wicked step-mother.

And they all lived happily ever after.

 (See more at http://www.ajsefton.com)