Friday 16 September 2016

What Annie Whitehead Learnt when Researching her Anglo-Saxon Novels

This month in the "What I Learnt..." series is author, Annie Whitehead. Like me, Annie writes novels set in the Anglo-Saxon period, albeit later in history.

Annie is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, is available now. She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. Annie has also recently been involved in a project re-imagining the events of 1066, called 1066 Turned Upside Down. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the English Historical Fictions Authors blog.

What Annie Whitehead Learnt when Researching her Anglo-Saxon Novels

1. That flour dust is highly flammable. 

Writing a particular scene, I wanted a fire, or better still, some kind of explosion, but I knew that, for that very reason, smithies/smiths’ forges were kept away from the main buildings. Fumes from metals might have bothered jewellery makers, occasionally causing them to be overcome or even unconscious, but that was too specific. I got in touch with Dr Kevin Leahy, (National Adviser, Early Medieval Metalwork -The Portable Antiquities Scheme):

“The danger with bellows is, I am afraid, rather mundane, if the hot gasses (and they would be very hot) were drawn back into the bellows that would set fire to the wood and leather bringing proceedings to an abrupt end. A simple flap, opened by the air pressure when the bellows are blowing, but shutting as air is drawn in ready for the next push would have solved the problem. If you are looking for a loud noise in the Anglo-Saxon period thunder is probably a better bet.

‘If you are looking at a man-made explosion these did occur in flour-mills during the Middle-Ages and it may have occurred during the late Saxon period. The suspension of fine flour in air is a highly explosive mixture which could be set off by a candle or a bearing of a wheel running hot. I suppose an Anglo-Saxon water powered mill is less likely to run away than a wind-mill (supposedly introduced during the Crusades) but in any event the explosive mixture would have been present.”

I had my interesting fact, and I had my pivotal scene!

Interior of a watermill.
2. That there was a thing called the ‘Eavesdrip.’

I had a scene where a newborn infant died and I didn’t want to assume that, a la Victorian novels, babies were not allowed to be buried in cemeteries without undergoing baptism. I contacted my erstwhile tutor and Anglo-Saxon specialist, Ann Williams:

“The only reference I can find is in John Blair (The Church in Anglo-Saxon England, p471). There he observes that the later infant burials in the graveyard at Raunds, Northants (one of the few to have been thoroughly excavated) encroached on the reserved strip of land closest to the walls of the church; and in a footnote (201) says that ‘this looks like a case of the widespread practice of burying infants under the ‘eavesdrip’ and refers to Stephen Wilson, The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in pre-modern Europe p216, ‘for the idea that water running off the church roof conveyed some kind of posthumous baptism.’ It kind of makes sense!”

I was able to write a fitting end to the scene and lay the tragic infant to rest.

Anglo-Saxon Church” attribution - G. Baldwin Brown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

3. That novelists end up chasing the tiniest facts, just to get it ‘right’.

Could my character describe another as having almond-shaped eyes, I wondered? Were almonds known to the Anglo-Saxons? I learned that yes, they were, but they were new and exotic and definitely ‘foreign’. Debby Banham, historian and author of Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England, says:

“Almonds and pine-nuts are mentioned very occasionally in the medical texts, but there are no archaeological finds … it is possible that they were just names, and never really used … however, they could have been imported in small quantities as part of the spice trade without making any impression on the archaeological record. Only the rich would have access to imported nuts.”

I suppose they were the Beluga Caviar or Kopi Luwak Coffee of the age!

Almond Plant

4. How vellum is made.

Writer Hugh Scott talks about verisimilitude and whilst I don’t quite agree with his definition, he says you have to “slap your reader with detail that he wouldn’t think of for himself.” Rather than simply mentioning that there was a pile of vellum on the table, I wanted a different detail. I learned how calf hides are softened in a lime solution before the bristly hair is scraped off with a really sharp knife, a process known as ‘scudding’. The skins are then stretched out on a frame known as a ‘herse.’ I learned all this just so I could have a character walking past the frames. But I thought this would be more interesting and a better setting of the scene than to mention the vellum sitting in the scriptorium waiting to be written on.

Charter of King Eadwig (Edwy) AD956

5. That, paradoxically, fiction turns historical figures into real people.

I have studied the Anglo-Saxon charters and other primary sources for many years, but it became a much more personal enterprise when I began writing about these people as characters. Above in the (vellum) document, Aelfhere of Mercia’s name is clearly visible. The fusion of the historical person with my fictional character was enlightening and very satisfying.

Pictures attribution: Watermill, copyright Annie Whitehead. All other images public domain unless stated otherwise.

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  1. Thanks for inviting me over to your blog Matthew!

  2. Nice article Annie and Matthew - always good to read something interesting while enjoying my morning cup of coffee!

  3. I loved reading this article. Thanks, Annie! I'm quite nutty about details myself and love history and reasearch! It's such fun and you learn a ton of information! What's in the details gives life to your prose.

  4. Fabulous article - I love your meticulous attention to detail!

  5. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by and leaving comments. And thanks to Annie for being such a good guest!