How Dark Ages Crime and Punishment has Progressed

Now, I’m not big on commemorating deaths, but today’s anniversary reminded me of the history of crime and punishment. On this day in 1536  the beheading of Anne Boleyn, queen of England and wife to Henry VIII, brought her life to an end. It was claimed by Henry and his counsel that Anne had committed High Treason via adultery. Her punishment was death by having her head removed from her shoulders.

Henry was a ruthless and all-powerful leader, who believed that he had been appointed by God – as did all English kings – which allowed him to execute at will. Anyone who crossed him had their life snuffed out, even those closest to him. But he was not the first monarch to act this way, it is just that the others were not quite so glamorous.

In Anglo-Saxon times adultery was an offence that could end in death, sometimes by drowning. Slander would get your tongue cut out and thieves could have their hands cut off. In many cases though, fines were imposed for offences including murder of a freeman or slave. Only the murder of a noble would result in execution. Or if the king decided you needed to lose your head then so be it.

Early England was a violent and dangerous place and its lawlessness is well documented in theAnglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, archaeologists studying burials from the seventh and eighth centuries believe that the larger kingdoms had secured a stable society. To  maintain the peace kings introduced civil justice and law codes that included capital punishments for the very serious  offences. Burials have been found in non-consecrated ground containing bodies of people who have been decapitated and with their hands tied: obviously criminals. Written sources have frequently mentioned the judicial courts and range of punishments and executions for the guilty.

There were plenty of hand-to-hand battles to account for the mutilated bodies found, but the way the criminals have been  laid out indicates the purpose of their death. Many were buried face down with rocks on their backs as if to weigh them down and often they were buried in batches, suggesting particular execution periods. They were buried outside the towns or village borders as if they were not welcome in the community. There were many hangings,  as the evidence of gallows suggests, but even so, heads were still cut off from the bodies. The reason for this is so that the person would not be resurrected or his spirit come back to haunt the living. I have included examples of this in Gulfyrian and The Dark Garden.

This method of peace-keeping and control was designed to keep order and to inflict suffering on the wrong-doers. Thank goodness we no longer live in the Dark Ages…

But today I am disturbed to read that a woman in Sudan is to be executed for not converting to Islam. In Pakistan a woman is stoned to death for marrying a man her family does not approve. These are not isolated cases. How far have we actually moved on from the Dark Ages? Well, not very.

Milking the Puddings: What was Sweet in the Dark Ages

Full moon in May means rice pudding in our house. It is the Buddhist festival of Wesak, or Buddha Day, and rice pudding symbolises Buddha’s first meal following his Enlightenment, which was a sortof rice pudding.

I also favour this tradition as it fits in well with the Anglo-Saxon month of May. The full moon in May was known as the Milk Moon and May was, according to Bede, the “month of three milkings”.  He went on to explain: “So called because in this month the cattle were milked three times a day,”  Bede commented on the fertility of the land that resulted in the abundance of dairy cows production. As well as milkings, the Anglo-Saxon calendar The Labours of the Months, depicted the folk looking after the sheep. So the people of the Dark Ages were a bunch of farmers, obviously.

Records show that the people from the Early Medieval period had healthy diets and grew quite tall. But surely they must have had pudding? Man cannot live by turnips alone, as they say. So I did some research for Anglo-Saxon pudding recipes.

One of the sweet foods I often find during my research is a type of cake made from oats. The result of these cakes would be a cross between a cake and a flapjack. Other ingredients included honey, which was the source of sweetness as sugar was unknown in Britain at that time. There was also chopped fruit such as apples and, for the rich people, imported spices like cinnamon.

Trade with merchants from the far east was buoyant. It was surrounded in exotic mystery and no ordinary person understood the secrets of the foreign lands. The travellers would tell tales collected from their journeys. There would be magic and stories of strange beasts. Cinnamon, for example, came from the weird and wonderful Cinnamon bird. The birds made their nests from the twigs of the Cinnamon Tree and the spice sticks were collected from the nests. At the risk of losing one’s life to the fiery dragon protector, no doubt.

But for most people the cost of cinnamon would have been beyond them. Instead, their puddings would have relied on native fruits such as apples, pears, currants, strawberries, bilberries, cherries, plums and gooseberries, served with honey or cream. Baked apples were popular and I love these too, especially when they are cooked with currants stuffed inside. Mmm… Other puddings were shortbread, soft cheese pastries and fruit crumbles.

Most of the ‘recipes’ from this time are not the traditional sort – written. They rely on archaeological evidence such as old beehives, nut shells, ovens and remnants of other foodstuffs. Then we put the information together and guess the results. We could tell stories as exciting as the Cinnamon birds and their nests, but we don’t. We just recreate the Anglo-Saxon puddings. Sort of.

Anglo-Saxon recipes are available from The British Museum Cookbook by Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, 1987, British Museum Publications.