Daily Life in Saxon England
I don’t often post about what I do when not writing novels, podcasting, or maintaining this blog. C. P. Lesley is a pen name—designed to separate my academic work from my fiction rather than to conceal my identity. Concealing identities is pretty much a hopeless task in the Internet Age, even if I had something to hide, but I do avoid posting the details of my and my family’s personal lives. Stories about cats, books, writing, and history are, in contrast, among the things I’m happy to share. And today’s excursion into history involves daily life in Saxon England.
First, a bit of background. Almost thirty years ago now, I published The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible. The book is still in print and, in fact, sells more copies each year than all my novels combined. It grew out of my PhD dissertation, the conclusions of which I boiled down into the introduction.
The text itself was, and is, more fun than anything I could say about it. That’s because it is what scholars call a domestic conduct book: a guide to running a household, with advice on everything from desirable behavior in church to the management of servants to recipes for mead. Books like this were all over Europe in the sixteenth century, and had been for some time, but except for Domostroi, they don’t seem to have reached Russia before the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725).
So with this in my past, it’s no wonder I leapt at the chance to read Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred’s Feast. Sure, I love Uhtred, despite the total disconnect between the books I usually choose to read and his adventures. I’ve interviewed Bernard Cornwell more than once for the New Books Network (most recently about War of the Wolf, Uhtred’s eleventh adventure) and can swear that he’s a delightful guest. But what makes Uhtred’s Feast special is that Cornwell joined forces with Suzanne Pollak, a well-known chef. Together they produced a book that combines three short stories featuring Uhtred with discussions of everyday Saxon life and a whole series of Saxon recipes updated with such modern things as exact measurements. These last two elements are where Uhtred’s Feast overlaps with Domostroi (which, to be clear, has many recipes but all of the medieval variety that say things like “boil the berries well for a long time, then add honey”).
What did I take away from Uhtred’s Feast? First, the list of ingredients available to Saxon households, especially wealthy ones, was broader than I would have imagined. They had not just various types of meat and vegetables (carrots, parsnips, beets, fennel, turnips, leafy greens, onions, garlic, and more) but also wine and ale and vinegars, herbs such as bay leaves, sage, juniper berries, and thyme. Honey was the main sweetener, and fats were far from unsaturated, although grass-fed meat has more omega 3’s than today’s grain-fattened variety. Salt and, especially, pepper were not guaranteed, but they appear in most of the recipes.
All those elements are quite similar to the cuisine reflected in Domostroi—understandable since both evolved in a northern climate. But what I found remarkable was how familiar some of the recipes were to me as a modern-day cook. A recipe for Braised Beef Brisket could have come out of my own kitchen. Salmon Gravlax is a little less common, but the recipe itself clearly hasn’t changed in centuries. Royal Beef Stew is unusual in its inclusion of honey and vinegar, but the other ingredients are classic. The bread recipe has been adjusted to take into account today’s silken flours, but it’s almost identical to the basic recipe still used today.
Then there are the fun surprises: the Egg Cake that is indistinguishable from what in the United States is called a Dutch Baby Pancake; the discovery that the cakes King Alfred so famously burned (at least in myth) were oat cakes, the ancestors of today’s crumpets; the spatchcocked chicken, distinguished only by its Saxon herb blend (fennel, coriander, white and black pepper, savory).
Not every dish is familiar, of course. I doubt I’ll be rushing out to buy minced wild boar for meatballs, hunting down eels for a pie that includes almond milk and turnip, or smoking a pig’s head anytime soon. But I may try the Saxon compote, which mixes bitter ale with apples, walnuts, and honey. And I will certainly braise a turbot and give that Royal Beef Stew a try. Even the dishes I don’t want to cook are interesting to read about.
You’ll have your own likes and dislikes, no doubt. But however you feel about cooking from scratch, Uhtred’s Feast is worth your time. If nothing else, you’ll learn a bit about the world of the Last Kingdom series—and there are those three new stories to read.
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As I mentioned last week, my latest novel, The Merchant’s Tale, co-written with the historical novelist P.K. Adams, is now available for purchase. Read on for the book summary, then check back next week for a deeper exploration of the novel, how it came to be, and a few reflections on what I learned from the experience.
Karl Scharping, a twenty-eight-year-old merchant from Danzig, has one thing on his mind—the beautiful bride awaiting him in Moscow. A careless leap from his horse derails his plans, confining him to a monastery near the White Sea. Hobbling to the window on crutches, Karl looks out on a vast expanse of water glistening in the dawn light and gasps at the sight of an English merchantman at anchor in the bay. He has no idea how much trouble that ship carries in its wake.
When Richard Chancellor departs his native London to serve the interests of his Tudor king by locating a new passage to the spice-rich Orient, he does not expect to wind up in Muscovy—ruled by Tsar Ivan IV, soon to be known as “the Terrible,” and his Romanov in-laws. The Russians welcome Chancellor and his sailors to the Kremlin, although the foreigners’ unfamiliar language poses problems and accidents delay their journey south. Then they reach Moscow, and their problems really begin.