Ann Swinfen Author of Flood Fri, 10 Aug 2018 14:46:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Dr Ann Swinfen – 1937 – 2018 Fri, 10 Aug 2018 14:46:39 +0000 It is with deepest regret that I have to tell her many readers that my dear wife Ann passed away quite suddenly at home on the morning of Saturday the 4th of August. Now there will be no more wonderful stories of Christoval Alvarez, or Nicholas and Emma. I have decided, however, to keep this […]

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It is with deepest regret that I have to tell her many readers that my dear wife Ann passed away quite suddenly at home on the morning of Saturday the 4th of August. Now there will be no more wonderful stories of Christoval Alvarez, or Nicholas and Emma. I have decided, however, to keep this website open for the foreseeable future, so that new readers will continue to have access to her compelling novels.

David Swinfen

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Medieval Books – Part One Tue, 31 Jul 2018 07:00:00 +0000 Until Nicholas Elyot, bookseller in fourteenth century Oxford, walked into my life, I had no more than a hazy knowledge of medieval books. The general impression I had gained, like most other people (I would guess), was that medieval books were limited in number, restricted as to contents, and confined to religious institutions and a […]

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Until Nicholas Elyot, bookseller in fourteenth century Oxford, walked into my life, I had no more than a hazy knowledge of medieval books. The general impression I had gained, like most other people (I would guess), was that medieval books were limited in number, restricted as to contents, and confined to religious institutions and a very few royal and aristocratic houses.

Part of the problem lies in the terminology. ‘Medieval’ is a loosely defined term at the best of times, equivalent to ‘pertaining to the Middle Ages’, which can be extended to cover all the centuries from the end of the Roman Empire to the dawn of early modern Europe, another imprecise date. However, for our purposes, let us take it as beginning in England with the Norman Conquest and petering out in the Tudor period. As the new technology of printing was introduced toward the end of this period, in the late fifteenth century, I am interested in looking at medieval books before printing, the kind of books Nicholas sold and, increasingly, produced.

It is clear from the sheer numbers of exquisite medieval books which still survive in libraries, museums, and private collections that this is but the proverbial tip of the iceberg. If we take into account the destruction wreaked by time, mice, damp, insects, and the savage attacks by zealots like Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in England and Savonarola in Italy, the original number of medieval books must have been much, much greater than those which survive. The number was not so limited after all. Accustomed as we are to modern printing, it is difficult for us to grasp that every one of these books was handwritten, but a monastic scribe or a secular scrivener, working day after day, could produce a remarkable amount of work.

The content of medieval books covered a very wide range. In the first place, we can easily divide them into two main groups – those intended as practical and business records and those intended for scholarly or leisure reading.

Manor records

The former group includes all those manorial records which are full of fascinating details about the buying and selling of land, rents, the employment of servants, crops, game, household expenses (three yards of silk for a christening gown, twenty hogsheads of canary wine…) and the like. It also includes the chartularies of the monastic houses which may cover similar details but more particularly the gifts of benefactors and the rights and privileges of the institution. The surviving records of government run to thousands and thousands. As time passed and the merchant class expanded and grew rich, their businesses required detailed record keeping as well.

Manor court roll

Many of these are not ‘books’ as we would recognise them, for they were more conveniently kept as scrolls, so that additional pieces could be sewn on as required. Their numbers are staggering, as you will realise if you have ever seen a picture of how they are stored.

Parliamentary records

The records of business houses, however, would often be kept in bound ledgers, rather than scrolls, in the middle and later medieval period. The Italian banking houses led the way, with their new and sophisticated book-keeping, but the practice soon spread to the rest of Europe, so that even quite small businesses kept records. As government taxation became better organised, it was in the small shopkeeper’s interests to keep reliable records (and even know how to hide assets from hungry government tax collectors!).

However the other type of book is of more interest to me, as it was for Nicholas – the book for reading.

13th C New Testament written over 7th C text

The earliest books were almost exclusively of a religious nature, perhaps because it was felt that the effort required in producing a book could only be justified as a form of religious observance. And they were produced in religious houses, mostly by monks, although a few were written by literate nuns. The lives of saints, psalteries (collections of psalms), copies of the writings of the early Church fathers, and of course the Bible – all of these were produced.

But gradually things began to change. With the rediscovery of classical texts, the so-called Renaissance of the twelfth century, and the foundation of the early universities, the range of medieval books expanded rapidly. They included translations from Greek, Latin, and Arabic, and covered subjects as diverse as science, medicine, architecture, philosophy, logic, mathematics, music, history, geography, and astronomy, as well as literature, both poetry and prose. It was in the twelfth century that the extraordinary polymath, Hildegard of Bingen, lived, and the twelfth century cathedral schools became centres of learning, paving the way for the founding of the earliest European universities soon after.

13th century medical text

At the same time the exchanges of trade and business throughout Europe were creating a need for basic literacy in an ever-widening portion of society, not only amongst churchmen and government officials but amongst the rising ‘middle class’, that is merchants and professionals. Literacy began to spread to the women in their families. Certainly by no means everyone was literate – there was probably little literacy amongst those who laboured on the land! – but in the towns and amongst those who had some leisure in their days, it was growing, so that by the time Nicholas’s bookshop was open in fourteenth century Oxford, his customers would include not only the students and dons of the university, but the wealthier citizens and their wives and daughters.

King Arthur 14th C

With this growth of reading for leisure came the books recounting the tales of Arthur and his knights and the hero tales which had long been an oral tradition but which now found their way into more polished literary versions. Moral tales were also popular, particularly those with a humorous twist – the tales of cunning or foolish animals. Up to the fourteenth century, leisure reading for the upper classes had generally been in French, but now English authors began to write more and more in English, of which notable contemporary examples are Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman, and the works of Chaucer, including the most famous, The Canterbury Tales.

Sir Gawain & the Green Knight 14th C

Even new religious books were produced. New lives of saints continued to appear, as did the newly most popular religious book amongst the laity, the book of hours, a guide to daily prayers, much cherished in this age of real piety.

Book of hours

Small, easily portable, and often very beautiful, they could be produced to the customer’s requirements. An example of the increased literacy of the times occurs in a court case when one servant accused another of stealing his book of hours. Both servants were literate. This was probably a very simple book, not one of those with exquisite illuminations, but it proves how popular these aids to prayer had become.

Book of hours 1440

With the growth in demand for books, both for scholarly study and leisure reading, came the growth in bookshops, especially in the university towns, where a bookshop with a licence from the university had a steady business catering for student needs, but also dealt with secular customers, as well as providing stationery. Such a bookshop is that owned by Nicholas Elyot in the High Street of Oxford.

Calendar included in book of hours (customer request?)

With scriveners employed in producing peciae – the extracts copied from set texts which students could hire – the bookshop was ideally suited to copying and producing texts for all its customers, from religious works like books of hours and lives of saints to tales of Arthurian heroes or traditional folktales. The bookshops thus became the forerunners of later publishers and printers. In these days before the printing press, production was necessarily on a small scale, but fourteenth century bookshops like Nicholas’s provided a vital transition between the time when literacy was found only amongst the privileged few to the explosion in literacy after the introduction of printing.

The fable of the wolf & the lamb

Next time I will be looking at the physical production of books.

Till next time,

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Marketing Books – Update Sat, 30 Jun 2018 17:35:29 +0000 Recently I seem to have had a lot of people asking me about marketing books. Not only are there more and more authors turning to self-publishing, having found the traditional route did not suit them, for whatever reason, but also authors who are traditionally published have been discovering that a considerable burden of marketing their […]

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Recently I seem to have had a lot of people asking me about marketing books. Not only are there more and more authors turning to self-publishing, having found the traditional route did not suit them, for whatever reason, but also authors who are traditionally published have been discovering that a considerable burden of marketing their books nowadays falls on their own shoulders.

Unfortunately, I have been ill for three weeks this month, and I am not quite fully recovered, so I am afraid this blog will have to be short and sweet!

If you look through my earlier blogs, by going to the blog page on my website and scrolling down to July 2015 and October 2016, you will find two previous ones on marketing books, which explain what I was doing at each of those points in the course of my self-publishing career. However, things move rapidly in this fast changing world of modern publishing. Not only that, but each author’s own career changes and develops as more books are published. What worked for me in the past is not necessarily relevant now.

My number one bit of advice on marketing books is ‘Write the next one!’ And if possible, ‘Write a series!’

It is very difficult to succeed as the author of a single book, unless you are taken up by a large commercial publisher who is prepared to pour a great deal of money into a marketing campaign. It has been done, and no doubt it will be done again, but publishers are less and less likely to make this kind of effort unless the author is some kind of celebrity, so that they can hook the campaign to a name.

For the self-published author of one book, this is not going to happen.

Certainly such an author can use some of the marketing tools I mentioned in my earlier blogs, but nothing matters as much as writing more books. If readers enjoy your first book, where do they go afterwards? If no more books by the same author are available, they will go elsewhere, and the author has lost a potential audience.

When I started writing and publishing, I wrote only standalone books. My first three books (originally published by Random House) were The Anniversary, The Travellers, and A Running Tide, all standalone, contemporary novels. When I moved into historical fiction, in order of writing, they were The Testament of Mariam, This Rough Ocean, The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez, and Flood. Again, all standalones.

The first two of these remain (and will continue to remain) as standalones. Then I was given some very sound advice by the well-know editor, Rosie de Courcy. She had read The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez and liked it, but felt that I tried to cover too much in one book (about ten years). She told me that the original book would do better expanded into a series, which would allow me to explore the story in far more detail. This is what I have done, and she was quite right. Working on the series has allowed me to do much more, developing the characters and their world in the sort of detail which was impossible in a single volume, and creating entirely new story lines. There are nine books in the Christoval Alvarez series now, with more planned.

The fenland novel, Flood, was also originally intended to be a one-off, but I have found the characters constantly talking to me, so I took them forward in Betrayal. When I can delve into the necessary research, there will be a third in the series.

And what does this have to do with marketing? Very simple! The books market themselves. Once a reader really enjoys the first book in a series, he or she will immediately go looking for the next, and the next . . . I know the feeling. I do it myself.

Therefore, when Nicholas Elyot sprang to life, I knew from the start that Oxford Medieval Mysteries would be a series. There are quite a few medieval mystery series around, many of which lay the emphasis on the mystery. The books in the Oxford series each contain a mystery, but I wanted to do something a bit different, exploring the day-to-day lives of ordinary people in the fourteenth century, so the stories are more than straightforward mysteries, rather novels which contain a mystery element, along with much else.

Nowadays, I do very little marketing, letting the books speak for themselves. I have found that once Amazon discovers that your books are beginning to sell, they will do a lot of marketing for you. They regularly send out emails about my books to readers who have read one or more of them, or have read books set in a similar period. They do promotions for me – Kindle Daily Deal, Kindle Monthly Deal, Kindle Seasonal Deal. As a result, I no longer do Countdown promotions or other special offers myself, which I did in the early days. I am no longer on any book promotion sites. About the only thing I do is some very modest Amazon ads under ‘sponsored products’ on the US Amazon site. These cost little and seem to be quite effective. In addition, you can monitor just how effective, which is not always the case with other forms of advertising. (Try Googling ‘Amazon Ads’ – there’s plenty of guidance.)

I do have a New Release Mailing List (see the Sign Up page on my website). Whenever I publish a new book or audiobook, an email is sent out to subscribers first of all. I also announce it on Facebook and Twitter.

That really is it! Apart from anything else, it allows me more time for writing. So my advice to those just starting out on this exciting but chancy career – explore lots of options in the early days, then hone them down as you proceed, keeping only what is effective and appropriate. Above all, concentrate on the writing rather than the marketing. For those who are more experienced, have you given thought to whether you are doing the right level of marketing for the current stage in your writing career? And for those who simply want to read – enjoy it! But keep your eyes open for the next book to enhance your life.

And to finish, a tiny bit of marketing. Illness has held me up, but The Stonemason’s Tale will be coming out very shortly!

By the way, I’ve had endless troubles with WordPress when writing this blog, so I hope it reaches you intact!
Till next time,

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Medieval Food – Part Three Thu, 31 May 2018 13:45:51 +0000 The Aristocracy Most of the characters in my historical novels belong to the middle or lower classes and I have written about their food in Medieval Food – Part One and Medieval Food – Part Two, elsewhere on this blog. The Swynfen family in This Rough Ocean were gentry, but during the English Civil War […]

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The Aristocracy

Most of the characters in my historical novels belong to the middle or lower classes and I have written about their food in Medieval Food – Part One and Medieval Food – Part Two, elsewhere on this blog. The Swynfen family in This Rough Ocean were gentry, but during the English Civil War even the gentry fell on hard times and lived hardly better than yeoman families.

However, throughout the medieval period the food of the royal court and the aristocracy reached extraordinary levels of sophistication, far beyond anything likely to be encountered today in Britain or Europe, except in very unusual circumstances. At the highest level of medieval society, however, luxurious dining was an everyday occurrence.

Aristocratic dining

As we have seen, the staple food of the lower class was bread and potage (or pottage, both spellings are used), a stew made of seasonal vegetables, with the addition of a little meat or fish when it was available, and cooked slowly in a large pot over the kitchen fire. We should not think of it as some boring, tasteless dish, endured unchanging every day. Because the medieval housewife used seasonal vegetables, the mix would vary from month to month throughout the year. Moreover, even in villages and towns a wide variety of herbs were available, as well as expensive spices like pepper (used in small quantities). It would be patronising, from a modern perspective, to assume that these cooks lacked skill in using these flavourings. If we were to call their potage recipes A Housewife’s Monthly Cookbook of 50 Varied Casseroles, we might have a better idea of what was served to their families. In addition, there was always fresh bread, baked at home or bought from the baker, as well as cheese and fruits (in season or else dried or preserved).

The term potage could also be used for any dish cooked in a pot, which can cover a wide variety of recipes. We find potages of fruit, potages of side dishes, potages of meat cooked in wine. The usual type of large pot used in all kitchens, rich and poor, was the three-legged sort, which could stand on the hearth or hang from a hook over the fire. For small delicate dishes prepared over a brazier, such as a special sauce, a cook might use a posnet (a small version of the three-legged pot, with a side handle, like a modern saucepan) or a skillet (side handle, no legs).

The upper classes had all of the same ingredients available to them as the rest of the population, although their main meal would not consist merely of a potage with bread. They did eat variations on the theme, but with some fancy touches, and a wide variety of dishes would be served at every meal. Moreover, they had access to a number of foods which were out of the reach of the lower classes.


Hunting deer

This source of meat, additional to farmed beef, mutton, and pork, was probably the greatest difference in available foodstuffs, for meat was an important constituent of the upper class diet (except on the Church’s meatless days), while meat was eaten more sparingly by the less wealthy. The hunting and consumption of game was restricted to the upper classes, except when limited opportunities were made available to followers or tenants.

The most prized foods in the game category were venison and wild boar, pursued with great enthusiasm in the hunt on horseback, and eaten with equal enthusiasm afterwards. Hares provided less meat, but were a delicacy.


Game birds were hunted with hawks – pheasants, partridge, quail, ducks, geese, herons, teal, plover, curlew, bittern – really any bird which was edible.

Netting rabbits

Rabbits, too, were eaten in quantity, but these were mainly farmed in warrens, then trapped with nets, often after being driven out of their burrows with terriers (chiens terriers – ‘earth dogs’). In theory, rabbits belonged to the lord of the manor, but rabbits will escape, and many a peasant could take a rabbit for the pot.
Not exactly game, but similar, were the swans sometimes eaten at feasts. Most belonged to the crown, although certain of the London livery companies had rights to some of them.

Imported Foods

Another major category of food which was regularly eaten by the upper classes, but which was generally too costly for the less well off, except for special occasions, was the foreign import. Perhaps the most significant of these was sugar.

In earlier times, medieval food was sweetened by honey. However, during the period of the crusades, western knights discovered a vast range of sweetened foods in the near East, many of them containing sugar. We tend to think, nowadays, either of cane sugar from the Caribbean or beet sugar from East Anglia. In the medieval period, the main source of sugar was Cyprus, one of the reasons the island was constantly fought over, for the crop was immensely valuable. This sugar was imported into western Europe, including Britain, but – unsurprisingly, considering the costs of shipping and the tendency to spoilage where insufficient care was taken – it was hugely expensive. The lower ranks in society could buy sugar, but only in small quantities.

Modern interpretation of a sugar banquet

Sugar became more and more popular until by the Tudor period it became a craze. You had arrived in society if you had a banqueting house in your garden. At the time the term ‘banquet’ was not synonymous with ‘feast’, but meant specifically a special meal or a course after a feast, eaten in a banqueting house, and more especially a sugar banquet, where everything – models, imitations fruits, painted playing cards, even the dishes – was made of sugar. The sugar craze was so insidious that the wealthy developed blackened teeth, and if you couldn’t quite reach this height of fashion, you could blacken your teeth artificially. The thought of the dental problems makes one shudder! I have a scene at a sugar banquet in my novel The Play’s the Thing.

Also imported were exotic fruits. Some of the dried fruits must have been relatively inexpensive, such as figs, raisins, and dates, for they seem to have been widely used. However, fresh foreign fruits like citrus fruits were more of a luxury, although lemons again were not unknown to people of the middling sort. Olives were available, but do not seem to have been very popular

Most expensive, weight for weight, were the spices, since they had to be imported from the Spice Islands, India, or the far East. To us, pepper is an everyday commodity, but a medieval pepper merchant could become very wealthy. Ginger, nutmeg, mace, ‘long pepper’, cloves, galingale, ‘grains of paradise’ could all be purchased. Given the enormous popularity of gingerbread, ginger must not have been the most expensive of these. Nowadays we rarely use saffron, since it costs a king’s ransom, due to the labour-intensive method of harvesting it, but in the medieval period it was grown in England, and labour was cheap, so we find it used lavishly amongst the rich and even by the less well off.


The two main food stuffs used for preservation were fortunately available to all. Salt was mined in many places in Britain, as well as being extracted from sea water around the coasts. Vinegar was a by product of wine making, but could also be made at home as verjus.

The final expensive import was wine. In the earlier medieval period, there had been extensive vineyards in the southern part of England. They had mostly been abandoned by the later period, perhaps because of the climatic change known as the Little Ice Age (one estimate c.1300-c.1850), which would not have been favourable to growing grapes. The aristocracy never went without their wine, even during the prolonged wars with France. Indeed, if we believe the evidence of Shakespeare’s plays, wine drinking was fairly common in the Tudor period. Earlier, the less well off made do with ale and, after the introduction of hops, also with beer.

Some oddities

It has been a characteristic of the rich throughout recorded history to include in their feasts foods which are neither nourishing nor necessarily appetising, simply because they are rare, difficult to obtain, awkward to cook, or just plain unpleasant. I am referring, of course, to the consumption of tiny birds, which can provide no real nourishment and were served merely as an ostentatious exhibition of wealth.

We have evidence that the aristocracy consumed thrushes, snipe, sparrows, lapwings, finches, house martins, larks . . any small native bird they could lay their hands on, or rather send their harassed servants out to catch. There are records of thousands of tiny birds being consumed at a single feast, skewered on sticks. Most exotic (and repulsive), larks’ tongues. Did they believe that this would sweeten their voices?

Nowadays we do not often eat eels, but these were eaten by the rich as well as the poor, together with lampreys, dolphins, and porpoises.

Who prepared the food?

Needless to say, the rich did not do their own cooking! In the lower ranks of society, the person in charge of food preparation was the mistress of the house, often assisted by a sister or daughter, and in all but the very poorest families, a maid or two. In other words, it was purely a female role. However, from both documentary and visual evidence, most food preparation in the great households was done by men, from the head cook, through the specialists in charge of the different departments, down to the lowliest scullions.

A busy cook

In many situations, this is understandable. Whole carcasses of beef, mutton, or pork would be butchered and the large joints carried from place to place, or hung from ceiling hooks to cure. The sheer size of some of the pots used in these great kitchens would have meant few women could lift them. Large quantities of spices would be ground with mortars and pestles ten times the size of modern ones. The bread kneading troughs were huge.

Churning butter

So most of the heavy work of food preparation was done by men. However, women were also employed in the great kitchens. They generally ran the dairies, churning butter and making cheese. They would also do some of the delicate work, making ‘subtleties’, fine decorations, and sugar work. However, when envisaging an aristocratic kitchen, we should remember that is was principally the preserve of men.

The different ‘departments’ of aristocratic catering

A large aristocratic manor functioned almost like a town, and the bulk of its food supply was produced on the estate or ‘demesne’ farm. This might vary according to location, especially after some landowners began to see wool production as their best money earner, but they would still have produced enough domestic meat, milk, butter, cheese, honey, fruit, wheat, barley, and other grains to feed the household. Peas and beans were field crops, since they could be dried in quantity for winter use, other vegetables were grown in a vegetable garden, herbs in a herbarium. Forest or park would provide hunting grounds, a warren bred rabbits, a stewpond plus rivers or streams held fish. Other food stuffs could be bought in.

Water mill

Once the basic foods were produced, they needed to be processed, so that a manor would have at least one mill. Tenants would be required to use this, paying for the privilege with part of their flour. Milk would be brought from the cow shed to the dairy, for the production of butter and cheeses.


Although wine was imported, ale and beer were made in enormous quantities in the brewhouse, since many water supplies were unsafe. Even the children drank ‘small ale’, the weakest sort. This did not mean everyone was drunk. Even regular ale was not very strong, but the fact that the water was boiled when making it meant that it was much safer to drink. In apple growing areas, cider would also be made in the brewhouse, and so would a supply of verjus, needed for making pickles for the winter.

Barn or granary

Grain for bread, once thoroughly dried, could be stored for months in the granary, then after being milled would be sent to the bakehouse, where vast quantities of bread would be baked every day. A great many people lived and worked on the manor, and they all ate a good deal of bread. Even the aristocrats used bread to mop up juices, or to serve as a kind of ‘pusher’ in the days before the invention of forks. The loaves once baked were loaded into baskets and taken to the pantry to await mealtimes. Because of fire risk, the manor bakehouse was often a separate building, away from the main house, as indeed the kitchen might be.


Another specialist ‘department’ on the manor was the pastry, which signifies the room where pastry was made, as well as the pastry itself. While hot pies were a popular street food in London and other towns, and pies were made and consumed in modest homes, pastry, filling and all, practice was rather different in the great households. Everyone knows the nursery rhyme about ‘Five and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’. Since the birds sing after the pie is opened, clearly they have not been baked. This is a kind of folk memory of the practice of making pastry cases in medieval great houses. These cases were usually disposable, only the contents being eaten, so they would often be baked separately, then used merely as a container, though it was often elaborate and ornamental. You might come across a reference to such a pastry case as a ‘coffin’ – and it was probably about as edible. The pastry was often made of nothing but flour and water, its purpose being to hold its shape, not to provide a tasty crust, though I daresay any beggars at the rich man’s gate would have been glad of the broken pieces, perhaps with a few fragments of the delicious filling still clinging to them.

Not all manors had a boiling house, but it was useful where there was a very large staff of servants and other workers to be fed every day. It was here that the simple potages for these people were made by the less skilled or apprentice cooks, to keep them out from under the feet of the senior cooks involved in making the elaborate dishes for the great folk, who would eat at the high table. Other cheaper foods were also made here, like sausages.

Making sausages

Early kitchens tended to be timber buildings, set well away from the manor house. Inevitably, however, the food would be cold by the time it reached the table, so the stone built kitchen, part of the house itself, became popular, and a few even survive to this day. Here the cooking was done at a large fireplace (or more than one), using a whole panoply of pots, jacks, hooks, spits, brandreths (a kind of trivet), and toasting irons. Here a jack could be turned by a dog in a wheel or a boy with a handle, and here the master cook would conjure up his remarkable dishes while, no doubt, shouting at his minions like any celebrity chef today.

The Abbot’s kitchen, Glastonbury, which survives

The kitchen floor often had a pronounced slope, so that it could be washed down and the dirty water drained away. This must have caused discomfort to the cooks. I speak from personal experience. We live in a Victorian house where the original scullery, with a sloping floor, was at some point turned into the kitchen. (The original kitchen became the morning room.) Standing for any length of time on this sloping floor caused me considerable pain in my legs and back, until we eventually had the floor levelled and tiled, so I feel for those medieval cooks.

The kitchen would generally have a dresser hatch which could be kept secured on the inside, where there was a flat shelf on which the prepared dishes could be laid out, ready to be collected by the servants waiting at table. You can see something similar between the kitchen and Hall of an Oxford college.

Somewhere near the kitchen would be the saucery, where a specialist cook would make the rich sauces beloved of the medieval aristocracy. Some of these (often served cold) would be made on a long term basis and stored in the saucery, others, the hot sauces for particular dishes being prepared in the kitchen, would be prepared as needed.

A few of the grander houses, especially after the fashion for sugar became popular, might have a confectionery for the making of those sugar extravagances, but not many would rise to this level of sophistication, apart from the royal palaces and the homes of the greatest nobles.

The cellar

Close by the kitchen, and usually between it and the Great Hall, would be the pantry and the buttery, convenient for serving the meal. They might even form the lower end of the Hall. The pantry held bread (from French pain) and utensils for slicing and serving it. As a clean, dry room, it could also be used to store tableware and table linen. If possible, it would be placed against a warm, dry south wall. The buttery held the ale, beer, and wine, and their related vessels, and might have steps down to the cellars below. For preference it would be built against a cool north wall. Both were no more than the length of the Hall from the high table, so both bread and drinks could be quickly replenished throughout the meal.

A simple ewer

A fine silver gilt ewer

There remains only one further food management ‘department’, the ewery. It takes its name from the ewers of water used for washing before meals. Each diner would hold out his hands over a basin, a servant would pour water over them (often scented with lavender or rose petals, warmed in winter), then offer a towel. However, all the valuable vessels of silver or silver gilt were also kept here, under close supervision, in the ewery, and sometimes also the best table linen. The ewery was under the direction of a sergeant who, with his staff, was responsible for preparing the Hall before each meal, replenishing the fires, and laying the tables. At the end of the meal they cleared the Hall and ensured that all the valuables were locked away.

In charge of all this elaborate work required to feed an aristocratic family and its retainers was a steward or controller, who managed not only the army of domestics but also the household finances. When we consider the complexity of these noble households, we can only wonder at the magnitude of the task! Imagine being in charge when Richard II entertained…

Richard II dining with ducal guests




Other news: the unabridged audio version of The Play’s the Thing has now been recorded and should be released soon, and I hope The Stonemason’s Tale  will be out in paperback and Kindle sometime in June. By going to the SIGN UP page on my website, you can join the New Release Mailing List to receive notifications of new releases.

Cover Reveal!


Till next time,


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Medieval Food – Part Two Mon, 30 Apr 2018 08:00:04 +0000 Continuing last month’s post on medieval food, let’s look at some more topics. Poultry and Eggs One item largely missing from medieval food was chicken, rarely eaten, except for the occasional cock, and that would be reserved for special occasions. Hens were important providers of food – their eggs were a major source of protein. […]

The post Medieval Food – Part Two appeared first on Ann Swinfen.

Continuing last month’s post on medieval food, let’s look at some more topics.

Poultry and Eggs

Caring for poultry

One item largely missing from medieval food was chicken, rarely eaten, except for the occasional cock, and that would be reserved for special occasions. Hens were important providers of food – their eggs were a major source of protein. Interestingly, since cooked chicken is white, not red, it wasn’t quite seen as meat, so the Church declared that it could be eaten instead of fish. Was this pressure from the monasteries, whose monks had to eat fish even more often than the laity? Or just a general disgust with the revolting stockfish?

There were other sorts of poultry, of course. Where there was a village pond or a handy stream, ducks and geese could be kept, but probably not often in towns. In marshy and coastal areas, wildfowl could provide a source of medieval food, for those allowed to kill them, as in the fens. They would be brought down with arrows or sling stones, or netted, or trapped with bird lime. The same areas provided eels, an alternative to fish.

Game birds were definitely off limits for ordinary people, being reserved as hunting quarry for the aristocracy, who generally pursued them with hawks. Hawks might be used to catch wildfowl like herons as well.

Noblest of edible poultry, the swan, was a very special case. Ownership of all swans traditionally rested with the king, but he could grant limited rights to certain great lords or London livery companies. Two of the latter still have rights to swans on the Thames – the Vintners and the Dyers. In an annual ceremony, called Swan Upping, all the swans on the Thames are caught and marked – one third to each of the livery companies, the royal swans remaining unmarked. Originally the swans were marked with a nick on the bill, but nowadays they are ringed. If you have  ever had dealings with a swan, you will know how dangerous this can be now, as in the Middle Ages.


Almost everyone, except the very poorest or those living in lodgings in large and crowded towns like London, would have space to grow some vegetables. All those vegetables that we have seen used in pottage would have been grown – leeks, beans, peas, carrots, kale, cabbage, and garlic, together with crops like spinach, turnips, and parsnips.

Busy gardeners

There would be a herb plot with our common herbs: parsley, mint, thyme, chives, basil, sage, sweet cecily, fennel, rocket, borage, rosemary, rue, oregano, and the like. You would probably have a lavender bush (useful against moths) and a bay tree. Some herbs not often used today would find a place, or more usually be picked in the wild, like burdock, yarrow, water plantain, marsh mallow, St John’s wort, chamomile, watercress, comfrey, feverfew, and nettles. Some of these, like nettles and watercress, were food; others were seen rather as medicines. The pain-killing and soporific effects of poppy seed were known, as well as its simple use in cooking. We have to remember that, for most, the women of the family provided all the basic (and not-so-basic) medical care. Or an older “wise woman” in the village would do so.

Dandelion leaves and nasturtium leaves and petals would be served in salads along with lettuce and lamb’s lettuce, although some people were suspicious of uncooked salads. Nasturtium seeds were used like capers. All parts of the nasturtium are edible.

Fruit and Nuts

Working in the orchard

Apples were the favourite fruit – easy to grow and store, with multiple uses. It would be rare to find a messuage garden without at least one apple tree, preferably several. Pears were more of a luxury, since they do not keep well, unless dried or pickled, but it might be possible to make room for one or two pear trees. You might also have a plum tree or a damson tree. Fruit bushes like currants and gooseberries do not take up a great deal of space. All of these fruits have one great benefit – they provide sweetness. In a world where sugar was an expensive commodity, the sweetness of fruits was highly valued.

Fruit did not necessarily only come from the garden, however. Even for those living in a town, access to the countryside did not usually involve a very long walk. And the countryside was brimming over with wild food – as well as all those herbs there were tiny wild strawberries, crab apples, bullaces (small wild plums), blackberries, sloes, and lots of nuts (walnuts, chestnuts, almonds, and above all, everywhere, hazelnuts). Rosehips could be gathered in autumn to provide pectin for setting jam, and they were a valuable source of vitamin C. This wild harvest was free, as long as it wasn’t on some lord’s land. All you had to do was pick it and bring it home.

Amongst the nuts, almonds were especially popular, both for use in marchpane (marzipan) and for making “almond milk”, often serving as an ingredient in medieval food.


The woods also provided acorns and beechmast for fattening pigs in the autumn, a practice known as pannage.


Lacking sugar, where did people turn for sweetening? Honey, of course. A medieval bee skep looked like an upturned basket and could be set up in the garden near the fruit bushes and trees, where it served two purposes. The bees would both pollinate the fruit crop and provide honey. Unlike today, there would be ample sustenance for bees, for even in large towns there was not the modern problem of vast areas of tarmac and concrete. Every messuage had a productive garden, and every odd corner of mud would have its crop of weeds and wild flowers.

Bee skeps

For us now, sugar is plentiful and cheap, honey more of a luxury. We need to reverse this perception when we think of medieval food. A competent housewife or her husband could produce a good supply of honey every year – barring accidents or disease amongst the bees. Sugar was bought in small quantities and used only for special dishes, such as for Christmas.

Imported Foods

Apart from sugar, the most notable imported medieval food was spice. Spices do not grow in Europe or Britain, so that – especially after the crusaders acquired a taste for them during their time in the East – they were imported. Even pepper was expensive and used with care. The other most common imported spices were cinnamon, cloves, mace, long pepper, ginger, and nutmeg. (There would be a craze for nutmeg in the seventeenth century, when it was believed to ward off the plague.) Saffron was imported from the Mediterranean and later from the Germanic states, which had begun to cultivate it. By the end of the Middle Ages it was being grown in Saffron Walden in Essex. This avoided the cost of importation, but the gathering of saffron is enormously labour-intensive, so it has never been cheap.

Trading in spices

Salt, fortunately, did not need to be imported. Large quantities were produced in the tidal areas of East Anglia (where remains of salt pans date back to prehistoric times) and in parts of Cheshire, where the suffix –wich in town names indicates the presence of salt works (from Roman times onwards). Some salt was, however, imported from continental Europe.

Imported dried fruits

Another major import was dried fruit, principally dates and “raisins of the sun”. Grapes were cultivated in England, but not on a scale to provide dried grapes (raisins). Dates came from the eastern Mediterranean and Africa. Given their fairly abundant use in medieval recipes, they cannot have been too expensive for ordinary people to enjoy from time to time. Figs were grown in England, and if you had a fig tree you could dry or preserve them, but like dates they were very widely used, so the supply had to be made up with imports. Currants, widely cultivated, could, with patience, be dried at home. If Britain lacked Mediterranean sun, the housewife could instead dry her currants beside the fire.

Sweetmeats and Cakes

Just like everyone in every era of human history, people in the Middle Ages enjoyed an occasional treat. Comfits and sweetmeats were made in a huge variety, usually involving dried native fruits, nuts (especially almonds), imported fruits like dates, sweet spices like cinnamon, honey, marchpane, sweetened pastry, even some of that precious sugar. The two terms, comfits and sweetmeats, seem to have been used rather loosely, though comfit is generally taken nowadays to mean a nut or seed covered with sugar.

A gingerbread maker

Cakes, sweet buns, fruit pies all had their place amongst medieval food, and special cakes would be made for special occasions, like Easter and Twelfth Day. Dried fruit was often an ingredient in cakes. Gingerbread was a favourite cake, and required that imported spice. Fruit pies would be made with fresh fruit in summer and autumn, and with such fillings as dried apples and currants in winter.

Cooking food

 By the later middle ages, the raised central hearth with the smoke escaping through the roof was being replaced by the fireplace built into a wall, with the smoke drawn up through a chimney. The kitchen fire had to be kept going most of the time (covered at night), which must have been very hot and trying in the summer. A bread oven would be built into the side of the fireplace, and a variety of brackets and roasting jacks would allow the cook to simmer pottage in a pot over the fire or turn a roast in front of it or rest a frying pan on a trivet. The bread oven was heated by filling it with hot embers. Once it was hot enough, the embers were shovelled out, the bread inserted with a long paddle, and the door sealed. After the bread was baked, the residual heat could be used for other cooking – cakes and pastries, or slow roasting.

Old Orkney kitchen, unchanged for centuries

For more delicate operations the cook might have a small brazier on which a pan could stand, to be watched over and stirred. Useful for making sauces or some kinds of egg cookery or for preparing home medicines.

 Preserving food

In the days before refrigeration, a constant concern of the housewife was the preservation of food for the winter and the early spring, before the new season’s crops were available. (Think of T S Eliot’s “April is the cruellest month”.)

There were four means of preserving food: salting, smoking, drying, and pickling.

Salting was mainly used for meat, especially the meat from the annual pig. The meat could be soaked in a brine bath until the salt was absorbed, or more often the joints were rubbed with salt and saltpetre, day after day, a horrible but effective task. If you were lucky enough to have some mutton or beef, it could also be salted. For those who lived near the sea or a river, fish could also be salted and packed into earthenware jars or wooden barrels, as could sliced eels. Barrels of lax (salted salmon) were a major export from Dundee. (Dundee apprentices complained that they were fed far too often on salmon!) Crocks of green beans could be salted and would keep well.

Smoking meat & fish on a large scale

Smoking was also used for meat and fish. A fireplace was generally provided with hooks in the chimney where the meat, especially hams and sides of bacon, could be hung for days or weeks until it was properly preserved. Fish would be strung in pairs, tails tied together, on a kind of washing line in front of the fireplace, high up, out of the way of the cooking. I have seen this demonstrated on Orkney, in a cottage which saw this kind of life until the 1960s. Kippers and Arbroath smokies, still made, are a survival of smoking fish to preserve it.

Even Mary & Joseph have hooks for smoking in their chimney

Drying. Both meat and fish can be dried. But drying was also the preferred method for most fruits – currants, apples, pears, cherries, plums, damsons can all be dried. The best method for apples is to core them, slice them into rings, and thread them on a string. Before the fire, like the fish, they could be dried to a slightly leathery texture, very sweet, to be used in winter pies. (I’ve dried them myself, in the bottom oven of an Aga.) The smaller fruits, and slices of pear, could be dried on trays in front of the fire. Dried peas and beans were a major staple medieval food in winter.

Home produced dried fruit

Pickling can be used for meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, and even eggs. The crucial ingredient is some kind of vinegar. In southern Europe and the Mediterranean, the medieval cook could make use of vinegar, a by-product of the wine industry. Although Britain had a modest wine industry in the Middle Ages, it did not produce vinegar. What to do? The answer was verjus.

Making verjus

The housewife could make this herself. First she needed to gather a large batch of crab apples and pile them up in a wide container. They would then be left quietly to rot, until they were thoroughly black. I suspect wasps might have been a problem, so they would need to be shut away in a larder or cupboard. Once they were rotten, they would be mashed by beating with wooden mallets. This mush was then poured through coarse cloth to strain it, and the liquid, verjus, stored in a barrel. For some reason, a few damask leaves were added. I wonder what they did with the strained pulp? Would even a pig have eaten it? This verjus, together with a selection of spices, would then be used to make pickles, just as we do today.

A few medieval foods could be preserved without all this work – apples carefully lined up on shelves, sacks of grains and flours, crocks of nuts, onions and garlic hung up plaited into strings, carrots and other root vegetables buried in straw or sand. All would require a cool dry place, for damp would mean disaster.

Street food

In the towns, especially London, both men and women sold food on the streets. Larger fixed enterprises were shops as we know them, in the smaller towns and villages as well, but the one-man or one-woman affair in the street consisted of a tray around the neck, or a basket, or a container slung over the shoulder or on the back.

These pie sellers even have a portable oven!

Hot pies were probably the favourite street food, a quick meal to eat as you hurried to the other side of town. There is always a risk with street food, but a cooked pie was fairly safe, one hopes. In the Middle Ages our ancestors had probably built up greater natural immunity to illness than we do in our soft modern lives!

Cakes, buns, even sweetmeats could be bought on the street. Costard-mongers sold apples and pears. (Costard is an old term for a type of apple. The modern costermonger sells many things besides apples.) For a brief period cherries would be for sale, if you weren’t lucky enough to have a cherry tree. One could buy milk from a dairymaid with a yoke of buckets over her shoulders – probably rather risky and fly-blown. Sometimes she would lead her cow instead, and you could have the milk straight from the cow. As well as foods to eat in the street, you could, of course, buy thing to take home, like a basket of eggs, useful for those without a garden and hens of their own.


By the Middle Ages, mealtimes generally followed the same three meal pattern as today, although the size and timing of the meals was a little different. People broke their fast on waking in the morning with a simple meal of bread and ale, perhaps with a piece of cheese. On a cold winter day it might be replaced by porridge. In the country, when the animals required attention first thing, or the cows must be milked, breakfast might be taken after the initial chores.

The morning milking

The main cooked meal of the day was the midday dinner – that pottage we looked at before. Back to work for the rest of the day, then a light supper before bed. Occasionally the main cooked meal might be taken later. For example, when farm work demanded a long day in the fields (as at harvest time), workers would carry food with them to eat in the middle of the day, then have a cooked meal at supper time. One might entertain guests to a midday dinner, but for busy people this could sometimes take place in the evening, as it does today.

Entertaining friends to dinner

Everyone carried a personal knife for eating, generally in a small sheath hanging from a belt, or inside a purse or scrip. One might also carry a spoon, or it might be provided. Forks had not yet come into use, but they were on the horizon. Plates and bowls were of wood, earthenware, or pewter. Sometimes, instead of plates, pieces of stale bread were used as trenchers, which soaked up any juices or gravy, afterwards given to beggars or the household dogs. At formal meals, people were served in pairs, helping each other to food and drink, but nothing so elaborate would have prevailed at simple family meals.

Sometimes you might have a picnic

Good table manners were important, for which there is clear evidence in many books of instruction for young people. To imagine gross gnawing of bones, spilt food and drink, belching, and sprawling across the table is to get quite the wrong picture of medieval table manners. Sit up straight! Keep your elbows off the table! Close your mouth when chewing! Do not speak with your mouth full! Wipe your mouth on your napkin – do not use the tablecloth! All of these instructions are clearly set out for the young.


So that’s a brief discussion (or maybe not so brief) of medieval food as eaten by the common people of the time. You will find my characters often eating, preparing and preserving food in:

Perhaps, to complete the picture, I should take a look at the food of the aristocracy. That’s for next month.

Till next time,

The post Medieval Food – Part Two appeared first on Ann Swinfen.

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Medieval Food – Part One Sat, 31 Mar 2018 17:00:25 +0000 Medieval food consisted of many of the same ingredients as we still use today, with the exception of imported foods which reached Europe later, such as potatoes, tea, coffee, and chocolate. Other imported ingredients, like sugar and certain spices, were available but costly. The main differences between then and now lay in the problems of […]

The post Medieval Food – Part One appeared first on Ann Swinfen.

Medieval food consisted of many of the same ingredients as we still use today, with the exception of imported foods which reached Europe later, such as potatoes, tea, coffee, and chocolate. Other imported ingredients, like sugar and certain spices, were available but costly. The main differences between then and now lay in the problems of preserving food over the lean months of winter and early spring, or in transit, as in moving fish inland, this last an imperative due to the Church’s rules about non-meat days.

An aristocratic meal

Another underlying difference was a social one. In the medieval period there was a far greater gulf in eating habits between aristocracy and royalty on the one hand, and the common people on the other. Nowadays the diet across all classes is much closer, although the rich will always have access to exotic foods and wine out of the reach of the less well off. Medieval food consumed by the clergy showed the same social divide as with laymen – the great churchmen (bishops, wealthy abbots and the like) ate like the aristocracy, while a poor parish priest often ate no better, and sometimes worse, than his parishioners.

In my books, I am concerned above all with the common people, so I will not be writing here about the diet of the aristocracy. The descriptions of some medieval feasts leave us reeling, wondering not only how they managed to eat so much, but also why they did not drop dead afterwards. Perhaps that myth about a surfeit of lampreys has a grain of truth in it!

Village Cottage, Town Cottage

It is necessary to bear in mind certain differences between those who lived in the country and those who lived in towns. In my series of Oxford Medieval Mysteries, I depict both the villagers of Leighton-under-Wychwood and the townsfolk of Oxford. The former, obviously, had more land, whether they held it freely or in villein service to a lord. They would have some means of growing the two staple grain crops, wheat (for bread) and barley (for ale), as well as legumes like peas and beans. They would generally have more room for a vegetable garden and an orchard, for chickens and pigs, perhaps a cow or two, a few sheep or goats.

Medieval messuage – still occupied

On the other hand, townsfolk at the time (except the very poor) would generally own or rent a messuage, a small house with a long strip of garden at the back, providing room to grow vegetables, keep hens and a pig, perhaps a bee skep, and to plant a few fruit trees and bushes. There would not often be room for a cow. Flour and barley would need to be bought, as would dairy produce, while the country housewife could make her own butter and cheese. On the other hand, townspeople had access to taverns and inns, and to bakeries and pie shops, even, in the large towns, street vendors of snack foods. The street cry ‘Hot pies, hot pies!’ is an ancient one.


The fundamental staple medieval food was bread. For the poorest, it was their main source of sustenance. This explains the constant concern at the time to regulate the price and quality of bread. It also explains why drought or blight destroying the wheat and other grain crops was a major disaster, leading to famine and even death amongst the poor. With care, both unground grain and their flours can be kept over winter, so this was a source of medieval food even when it was difficult or expensive to preserve other foods.

There were a number of different types of bread, of which three were common. The cheapest, roughest sort was known as ‘horse bread’. This was not only a term of disparagement, but also an accurate description, as it was fed to horses as well as the very poor. It was made of ground up dried peas and would have been hard and pretty tasteless. However, it would contain protein, so it was not without value.

Barley bread

The next grade up was ‘maslin bread’. The term covers a wide variety of mixed grain bread and was eaten by the majority of the population. It contained a mixture of wheat, rye, barley, oats – whatever grains were available. The greater the proportion of wheat, the higher the status. It produced a brown or dark brown loaf. If it contained a great deal of rye, it would be almost black, like modern rye bread. It’s amusing to think that this kind of mixed grain bread, so despised by the aristocracy at the time, is now regarded as far healthier and tastier than plain white bread. Maslin bread was nourishing and could sustain a hard-working medieval labourer. Being high in fibre as well, it would have been a healthy part of the diet.

A baker’s shop

The finest bread, eaten by the aristocracy, was ‘manchet’. This was a white bread made purely from the best wheat, milled small and then laboriously sieved through a coarse cloth. It would have had little nutritional value, but by eating it the aristocracy made an implied point – with all the rich meat they consumed, they ate bread only as what we would call a ‘side’. It was not, for them, as it was for the rest of the population, the staff of life.

Ale and Beer

Medieval food included ale. Everyone drank it, and the barley from which it was made provided sustenance, so that it was a food as well as a thirst quencher. Most housewives made ale at home on a regular basis (it did not keep well). The main ingredients were boiling water and malt, which was made by sprouting damp barley in a warm place, then roasting it. It was added to the boiling water together with a selection of herbs (every housewife had her personal recipe). Once the ale had brewed, it was strained and stored in a barrel. Some women became ale-wives, brewing ale on a larger scale and selling to their neighbours, a good source of income for a poor woman, perhaps a widow. Even young children and the elderly drank ale, for it was much safer than the often polluted water supply. This did not mean everyone went about drunk. The alcohol content was low, especially in ‘small ale’, the weakest version.

Making ale

Beer made with hops began to filter into England from the Continent, mainly Germany and the Low Countries, in the early 1400s. Its advantage over ale was that the hops acted as a preservative, so it could be kept for longer than ale. At first hops had to be imported, which held back production, but from about the 1420s hops were grown in England, where the main hop growing areas until recent times became Kent and Herefordshire. Of late, imported hops have been cheaper than locally grown ones, but there are signs of a trend back to English hops.

Pottage and Frumenty

After bread, the most important medieval food for ordinary people was pottage. Somewhere between a soup and a stew, it formed the staple item at the midday dinner, breakfast having consisted usually of bread and ale, with perhaps a bit of cheese. A basic pottage consisted of whatever vegetables were to hand at the time, the most popular being onions, leeks, beans, peas, carrots, kale, and cabbage, simmered in water. The simmering would kill off anything unpleasant in the water. The greatest variety of ingredients would be available in the summer, but peas and beans were dried for winter, carrots and onions could be stored. To thicken the mixture and make it more sustaining, barley could be added, either the simple grain, or sprouted barley, made in the same way as for ale. The mixture would be flavoured with garlic and herbs. Simply as a vegetable pottage, it would be nourishing. However, on meat days a little chopped bacon might be added, on fish days, some fish. It would be cooked in a three-legged pot (a ‘kettle’) directly over the fire, or in a large pot hung from a bracket.

A standard cookpot

There were, of course, no potatoes to be found amongst available medieval food. Bread filled the corners as potatoes do today, but there was also frumenty. The basic ingredient was cracked wheat, which could be made at home by pounding the wheat grains briefly with a mortar and pestle. For a savoury frumenty, this cracked wheat was then boiled in broth, with herbs and other flavourings. Served with pottage (or on high days, with meat), it help to stretch the more costly ingredients. For a sweet frumenty, the cracked wheat was parboiled in water, before cooking it again in milk, then stirring in eggs, some dried fruit, and perhaps a little honey.

Milk, Butter, and Cheese

Very little milk was drunk, except by young children, invalids, and the elderly. It was much too valuable as a source of butter and cheese. Moreover, butter and cheese can be preserved, making them even more valuable as a source of protein and fat during the lean times of year. Anyone who kept a cow had a source of these commodities, and housewives were competent cheese and butter makers. They also understood the necessity for scrupulous cleanliness in the production of both products. Traditional knowledge passed down from mother to daughter would have warned against the havoc wreaked by a dirty dairy.

Making cheese

There were three principal grades of cheese, of which the most useful was the hard cheese similar to a modern Cheddar. This took longer to prepare – draining and compressing the curds, salting, curing and turning the large round cheeses – but any woman who had a supply of hard cheese stored in her larder knew that her family would be well provided for. A softer cheese which had not gone through the curing process would be eaten while still fairly new, probably during the abundant milk period in summer, leaving the hard cheese for winter. The very softest cheese, similar to modern cottage cheese, needed to be eaten quickly.

Churning butter

Butter was churned to separate the solid from the liquid, a process which had been known for thousands of years. Once the grains of butter had clumped together in the churn they would be taken out and squeezed, to rid them of any excess liquid, then salted to preserve them as rounds or blocks of butter and stored in the coolest place available. Both the whey from cheese making and the butter milk from butter making would either be drunk or used in cooking.


Meat did not figure largely as a medieval food, except for the rich. Farmers would sell most of the meat they produced to the aristocracy. The exception for both country and town dwellers was the annual pig, fattened throughout the year on scraps, windfall apples, vegetable peelings, anything and everything which could be spared. Come Michaelmas, the pig would be slaughtered and every last scrap would be used. Preserving the hams and sides of bacon was a trying business, involving brine baths, and repeated rubbing with salt and saltpetre, which must have been agonisingly painful, especially if you had a cut on your hand. Some would also be smoked in the chimney. At the end of all the hard work, however, a medium sized family could get its winter supply of meat from one pig.

Roasting meat

Country dwellers might have mutton from a ram (ewes were kept for lambs and wool). Rabbits could be a bone of contention where an overlord had rights of warren. On most manors, rabbits were farmed, kept in controlled warrens, but rabbits, once established in England, have always escaped, and securing a rabbit for the pot was a common – if sometimes illegal – activity. In theory the lord might claim a right to hares as well, but hares being wild, this was a grey area. Pigeons were also farmed for their meat and eggs, but certainly wild pigeons would have been snared or shot by cottagers.

In the fens of East Anglia, the local people had common rights to the waterfowl, a substantial part of their diet until their land was stolen by developers in the seventeenth century, the background to my novel Flood. Those living in towns had even less opportunity to obtain meat than country dwellers, although there would be licensed butchers, if you could afford their prices. Beef would be beyond most people’s pockets. Venison was for the rich. Sausages sold by butchers might contain almost anything. Better not to ask.


Because of Church rules regulating medieval food, people were supposed to eat no meat, only vegetables and fish, on two days every week, and every day at certain periods like Lent. This could be a problem for those who lived inland and away from rivers. In some areas the rivers were large enough and the supply of fish and eels ample enough to support local fishermen. Monasteries had fishponds to supply their needs, as did many manor houses.

Stockfish – ugh!

Otherwise, all the fish for the massive number of customers had to come from the sea, where the trade of fisherman was vitally important in supplying this major item of medieval food. In the days before refrigeration and when all transport was slow, the only way to get fish from the coast to the inland consumers was in the form of ‘stockfish’. This unpleasant food was fish salted and dried to rock hardness, and sometimes even imported from as far away as Scandinavia. Before it could be eaten, it had to be soaked in repeated changes of water, to get rid of the salt, then pounded for a long time with a mortar and pestle until it was even remotely edible. That it was revolting even then is borne out by a good many contemporary accounts. On the evidence, a simple vegetable pottage would have been preferable!

More on medieval food next month.

Till next time,

The post Medieval Food – Part One appeared first on Ann Swinfen.

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Why Write Historical Fiction? Wed, 28 Feb 2018 18:00:26 +0000 I suppose to some it might seem strange that one should choose to write historical fiction. Or, indeed, to read historical fiction. Those who believe only the present day matters may snarl, ‘Escapism!’. They quite fail to see the point. Many even condemn the academic study of history. I remember a former colleague of my […]

The post Why Write Historical Fiction? appeared first on Ann Swinfen.

I suppose to some it might seem strange that one should choose to write historical fiction. Or, indeed, to read historical fiction. Those who believe only the present day matters may snarl, ‘Escapism!’. They quite fail to see the point. Many even condemn the academic study of history. I remember a former colleague of my husband’s, in the history department of his university, who held an academic position as an ‘historian’, yet who believed it was not worth studying any history earlier than the late nineteenth century and sneered (yes, I do mean sneered) at my interest in earlier periods, dismissing them as irrelevant.

How many politicians might one mention who have neither studied the past, nor learned the lessons that history can teach us?

Alas, far too many.

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ George Santayana.

Then there are those who find the study of factual history acceptable, but dismiss historical fiction as trivial. Now, in the case of some historical fiction, I do see their point. Some historical fiction is just any old fiction in fancy dress, with no real sense of the period in which it is set and riddled with anomalies. That kind of writing gives historical fiction a bad name. And there have been times when that was the predominant form of historical fiction available to the reader. Nowadays, I am glad to say, a large proportion of the writers of historical fiction undertake careful research and know their periods thoroughly.

How has this come about? Partly, perhaps, because of wider access to university education, with its insistence on meticulous research. Partly, perhaps, due to the greater availability of research materials. Partly, perhaps, to a general raising of standards amongst the community of historical fiction authors.

So, if we take it that the accuracy of historical fiction at present is – generally – at its highest ever, what are the advantages of writing and reading historical fiction over, on the one hand, contemporary fiction, and, on the other, factual history?

I have nothing against contemporary fiction. I read it myself. I have even written it myself. My first three published novels had contemporary settings, although, if you have read them, you will have noticed that I sneaked an historical dimension into all of them, even if it was only the earlier part of the twentieth century. Why? Because even in contemporary fiction I wanted to explore the ways we carry our past around with us, and past events continue to affect the way we live our lives. In the very first, The Anniversary, I wove together a modern story, taking place over twenty-four hours, with the pasts of the characters reaching back as far as Russia before the 1917 revolution.

It is the depth found in historical fiction which is largely absent in contemporary fiction. Our present is inextricably interwoven with our own personal past, and with the shared past of the human race. We can neither ignore that nor escape it. I am afraid that is firmly my outlook on life. So historical fiction, by exploring the past, enables us to understand a vital aspect of life which most contemporary fiction does not address.

As for the advantage of historical fiction over historical fact? Well, perhaps ‘advantage’ is putting it too strongly, for the two go hand in hand. In an earlier blog I wrote about the relationship between historical fiction and historical fact, and I won’t repeat that here, but I think the main advantage of the former is that it provides a doorway, an accessible route, into understanding the past. Certain types of factual history, heavy on data, tables, statistics, can hardly warm the heart and awake any empathy for our forebears. Very worthy and useful, of course. Sometimes very informative, such as statistical trends in life expectancy over the period of the Industrial Revolution. However, reading novels like those of  Mrs Gaskell and George Eliot gives us a much greater understanding of people at that time of huge upheaval in society. (Yes, I know they were portraying a period only slightly earlier than the time at which they wrote, but they were already able to put it in perspective.)

Also, from my own point of view, academic histories frequently deal (naturally) with major figures – monarchs, great generals – or with large social groups en masse, while I am interested in the individual lives of the smaller, unrecorded people, the people like you and me. Our ancestors.

In that earlier blog I wrote about this, and I’ll repeat a short passage here:

For myself, I have never felt the desire to write about the larger-than-life figures of history – the kings and queens, the heroes and villains – whose personal stories form part of that large factual world of the serious academic historian. What interests me intensely are the lives of ‘ordinary’ people, those who have gone to their graves unsung and unrecorded, but who form the majority of the population at any period in history. How did they live? What did they believe? What did they wear, eat, drink; what were their homes like? How secure were their lives, or did they live in constant fear of disease, war, cruel masters? How did they enjoy themselves? Above all, in what ways do we all share common aspects of life?

Unconsciously, perhaps, I seem to have written about these ordinary people living at far from ordinary times. My series The Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez is set during the latter part of the reign of the last and greatest of the Tudors, a time of life-changing discoveries in the geography of the world, and religious upheavals whose aftermath we still feel today.  Oxford Medieval Mysteries begin shortly after the Black Death, when around half the population of Europe was wiped out in the space of a couple of years and society would never be the same again. The Fenland Series deals with the struggles of the people of East Anglia to save their land and livelihood from the clutches of unscrupulous profiteers, during a period made even more desperate by the Civil War and vicious witch-hunts. Also during the Civil War, This Rough Ocean faces the problems of retaining one’s integrity when faced with public violence and personal danger. And as for The Testament of Mariam, well, that tells the story of the greatest upheaval in Western history from the point of view of a woman of no account.

I see that I seem to have a common theme here.

The times I write about are difficult or downright dangerous, but in my historical fiction I look at the ordinary lives of those ordinary people I am drawn to. Kit may work for the intelligence service, but she has her daily care of the patients in London’s hospitals. Nicholas’s family was decimated by the plague, but he looks to the future of his young children and enjoys the work of his bookshop and the company of his friends. Ordinary people living ordinary lives, despite desperate times.

I think it is by looking at these people who are, fundamentally, so very much like ourselves that we find the past coming alive for us. Yes, they lacked some of our modern technology. Yes, their clothes were a bit different. But they ate and drank, worked and slept, loved and hated, laughed and cried, just as we do.

That is why I write historical fiction. I have gone in search of them. And I have found them.

Till next time,

I’ve included, for your entertainment, a random selection of ordinary people, doing ordinary things, which I find moving.

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Deadlines – Good or Bad? Wed, 31 Jan 2018 17:40:19 +0000 I think the one factor which distinguishes the professional writer from the non-professional lies in the concept of deadlines. There are many people who write for their own pleasure, because they enjoy it. I’ve now given up teaching in the university, but for a long time I had an adult literature class which developed a […]

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I think the one factor which distinguishes the professional writer from the non-professional lies in the concept of deadlines. There are many people who write for their own pleasure, because they enjoy it. I’ve now given up teaching in the university, but for a long time I had an adult literature class which developed a spin-off for those who wanted to write. Every few weeks they would bring along their work and read it out. Some of it was very good indeed. But – apart from one person – they had no interest in a professional writing career. They wrote for themselves or for their families. Several wrote stories based on their childhood, for the benefit of their children or grandchildren. That is how Laura Ingalls Wilder started out, we should remember. So did many other distinguished children’s authors.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of writing. It is as creative as any other, and many people have a creative talent which has no outlet in their jobs or personal lives. It is done for pure pleasure, and the idea that it should meet deadlines seems absurd – and would probably spoil the pleasure.

To be a professional writer is something quite different.

A professional writer has to take the writing seriously. It is a job. A pleasurable one, certainly – most of the time! – but not something you do just when you happen to feel like it. Even for those who have another paid job, which puts the food on the table, the writing is something which takes up a significant part of every day. For those who have gone full-time, it takes up the whole day. And for all of us, it means meeting deadlines.

If you work with a commercial publishing house, they will set the deadlines, usually with your agreement. Most publishers want just one book a year. (There are exceptions.) I have a friend who wanted to write two books a year, in two different series. The only way he was “allowed” to do this was to use a nom de plume for the less well known series.

So when you sign a contract with a publisher, deadlines are set by them for the delivery of the manuscript by you (fixed), and for publication (much vaguer). When they do set a publication date, you may be surprised to find it can be as much as two years after you deliver the manuscript. However, remember that these are large businesses and your book is only one of a great many. It has to fit in with their publishing and marketing schedules. Unless, of course, you have written about some very current political scandal, in which case they will pull out all the stops to publish quickly!

You deliver your manuscript (on time, of course) and wait to hear from your editor. No deadlines for your editor, usually. When you do hear back, you find that he or she (usually she) wants changes, and there are deadlines for these too. You may not like the changes, and need to defend your corner, but others will be useful. You deliver your amended manuscript, and then you wait. And wait. Suddenly you are sent the copy edits (more deadlines), then the proofs (more deadlines), and they are very close. I once received the proofs of one of my books (over 300 pages) when I was on holiday and was expected to return them in a week.

By this point, you are probably well into the next book, particularly if you have signed a two-book contract, which will carry its own set of deadlines. However, the previous book will eventually be published, though you may almost have lost sight of it by then.

All these deadlines are good in many ways. They keep the whole process of writing and publishing on track. It’s professional. This is not simple writing for pleasure, it is a professional career.

Yet there is a downside to these deadlines. They can be very, very stressful, especially for delivering a manuscript, if at some point the words won’t come. I think what is known as “writer’s block” is often sheer panic induced by deadlines. Do those who write purely for themselves, for pleasure, suffer from writer’s block? I doubt it.

That is the scenario for those who work with a commercial publishing house. What about those of us who have decided to go independent? I am familiar with both situations, and I can affirm that deadlines still remain important for the independent author-publisher, at least if you want to be professional.

In most of the books written to guide the new and not-so-new writer, you will find the inflexible rule that you must write every day, otherwise somehow you will cease to be a writer.

I do not write every day.

Some days I do research. In fact, I do a lot of research, since these days I write only historical fiction and I am obsessive about getting the details right. Some days I do editing, an essential part of the writer’s tool kit. Of course, both of these require writing of sorts – note-taking or rewriting previously written work – but that is not the kind of writing meant by the handbooks. Some days I spend a lot of time editing the audio files of my books being recorded by my two narrators. There are even days when, wearing my publisher’s hat, I am entirely taken up by admin. It has to be done, and there is no one else to do it.

What about deadlines? As a publisher, I have to set deadlines for myself as a writer. I first went independent early in 2014. At that point I was able to claim reversion of the rights on my commercially published books. I also had several historical novels already written, so my deadlines in that first year, and overlapping into the second, were simply related to editing and formatting these existing books, buying ISBNs, sorting out cover design, setting up a website and social media links. There was nothing stressful about these deadlines, it was simply a matter of working my way through a very long to-do list.

Once this initial period was over, the situation changed. I was now writing new work and I needed to set deadlines for handing my manuscripts (as writer) to myself (as publisher). There were, of course, no financial penalties, as there might be with a publishing house, but these deadlines could be double-edged. They had their good side. They kept me on track as a professional author-publisher. But, perhaps surprisingly, they could also have their bad side – they could induce stress.

It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Why should I be stressed by self-imposed deadlines? I don’t know whether other independent writers go through this, but I find my own deadlines feel as rigid as any imposed from outside. Once I was into this new phase of the writing business, I decided I could write four books a year, one every three months. I am now demanding of myself three books a year, one every four months. It is an intense schedule, but I am making up for the time I wasted trying to persuade commercial publishers to take me on as a writer of historical fiction. (My commercially published novels were contemporary.)

However, these deadlines for writing the books also need to allow time for the research, editing, and admin I mentioned above, and also for my part of the work on the audiobooks, which does take a lot of time.

Good or bad, the deadlines I set myself for 2017 meant that I published three new books: The Huntsman’s Tale, The Merchant’s Tale, and The Lopez Affair, and eight audio versions of my books: Bartholomew Fair, The Bookseller’s Tale, The Novice’s Tale, Suffer the Little Children, The Huntsman’s Tale, Voyage to Muscovy, The Merchant’s Tale, and This Rough Ocean.

I hadn’t counted them up before – it is a surprising lot!

I had wanted to publish The Troubadour’s Tale before Christmas, as it is set during the Christmas season of 1353, but I ran out of time. It has been published this week. It wasn’t in the original three books a year plan, so I suppose I did meet my deadlines!

Deadlines – good or bad? Love them or loathe them, I think they are essential for any professional writer, otherwise you run the danger of frittering your time away. Without the enforced discipline of a contract with a publisher, I think deadlines are even more essential for the independent author-publisher.

Now, let’s think about the plan for 2018.

Till next time,

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New Release – The Troubadour’s Tale Wed, 31 Jan 2018 17:30:42 +0000 Nicholas Elyot is back! Latest in the best-selling Oxford Medieval Mystery series. When Nicholas Elyot and his friends set out to spend the Christmas season in the country, they are prepared for a hard journey in winter weather. They are also wary of violence on the road, for these are troubled times after the Great […]

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Nicholas Elyot is back! Latest in the best-selling Oxford Medieval Mystery series.

When Nicholas Elyot and his friends set out to spend the Christmas season in the country, they are prepared for a hard journey in winter weather. They are also wary of violence on the road, for these are troubled times after the Great Pestilence, when bands of dispossessed and desperate men roam the countryside of England. It is not surprising, therefore, when the troubadours hired to provide entertainment at Leighton Manor are attacked in Wychwood. Yet why should this insignificant group draw the attention of outlaws, who are searching for something? Is one of the troubadours not quite what he seems?

Out in both Kindle and paperback HERE

Latest news: Philip Battley is already making a start on the audiobook.

Are you on the mailing list to hear about new releases? You can join HERE

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Happy New Year 2018! Sun, 31 Dec 2017 15:30:51 +0000 I can’t believe that it is a year since I was writing Happy New Year for 2017 – where have the last twelve months fled? Looking back over the year, I can see that it has been another very busy one. Although I wrote and published four books in 2016, and only (!) three in […]

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I can’t believe that it is a year since I was writing Happy New Year for 2017 – where have the last twelve months fled?

Looking back over the year, I can see that it has been another very busy one. Although I wrote and published four books in 2016, and only (!) three in 2017, there’s been a lot of other parts of this publishing world taking up my time. When you are writer, editor, publisher, and audio commissioner, you have to keep changing hats.

First, the three books.

2017 has seen the publication in paperback and Kindle of The Huntsman’s Tale, The Merchant’s Tale, and The Lopez Affair. It has been a delight for me that they have all received such a warm response. And that is one of the joys of this new publishing world we live in – the great emails and comments I get from readers pretty well every day. In the past, writing could be quite an isolated, lonely affair, but now I feel surrounded by a wonderful crowd of readers and supportive fellow writers.

So, thank you all, so much!

Then, the seven audiobooks.

I have two lovely actors working with me at the moment. Jan Cramer is recording the Tudor Christoval Alvarez series, and Philip Battley the Oxford Medieval Mystery series. During 2017, Jan has made the unabridged recordings of Bartholomew Fair, Suffer the Little Children, and Voyage to Muscovy. She will be carrying on with more of Kit’s stories in the coming year. Also this year, Philip has recorded the whole of the Oxford series so far: The Bookseller’s Tale, The Novice’s Tale, The Huntsman’s Tale, and The Merchant’s Tale. Now, although the bulk of the work falls on the actors’ shoulders, it’s quite demanding for me, too. I listen to and edit every minute, with book and notebook in hand. I then send my comments and corrections, and the actors record their updated files. It’s quite a long process, so the seven audiobooks have eaten into the writing time of my new books. Well worth it in the long term, but – unfortunately! – there are only so many hours in the day.

And, of course, the TV deal.

Within the space of a few weeks, I had (totally unexpected) approaches from four TV and film production companies interested in making a TV series of The Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez. Although this was exciting and slightly stomach-churning, it was also something of a worry. Since going independent and running my own career, I’ve dispensed with a literary agent. However, the whole film and TV business is extremely complex and full of pitfalls for the unwary. I knew it lay quite outside my area of expertise, so I set about hunting for an agent. The difficulty is that generally a literary agent will only handle your film and TV rights if they handle all your rights, and I didn’t want that. However, in the end I found a specialist agent, working just with the film and TV rights for books, Sarah Vignoles at The Artists Partnership. She’s brilliant and took over the negotiations for me. I’ve now signed up with Mainstreet Pictures, a smallish but high-powered company. Their CVs are stunning! Obviously there is a hiatus over the Christmas and New Year period, but things should start moving again in 2018. Of course, they have to sell the series to a television company like the BBC or ITV, but their connections are first class. Still can’t quite believe this is happening!

Looking ahead to 2018.

As well as progress with the TV series, there are other things in train. Philip has been recording the unabridged version of This Rough Ocean. As this is by far my longest book, it has been a huge undertaking, but he has finished the initial recording and I have done my edits, so there’s only the final polish and the submission to go. Like all the audiobooks, it will be available from Audible, probably about the end of January or beginning of February. It’s a book which holds a particular place in my affections, telling the story of my husband’s ancestors during the English Civil War. One of the protagonists is my namesake.

Jan, as I mentioned, will be recording more of the Alvarez series. If she can fit them in, she might catch up with the published books – that is, The Play’s the Thing, That Time May Cease, and The Lopez Affair. That would be rather satisfying.

I had hoped to have the next Oxford book finished by now, as it is a Christmas story, but all my other commitments made it impossible. I am working on The Troubadour’s Tale at the moment, and hope to have it out early in 2018 – fingers crossed! And if Philip can fit it in, he will record it.

So that has been most of my year in 2017. We managed our two visits to Herefordshire in the spring and autumn, and had some big family get-togethers in the summer and autumn, but apart from that, my social life has been practically nil. I think we’ve twice had lunch out with friends, and David and I have celebrated our birthdays and anniversary with lunches out, but that is literally it! Nose to the grindstone, that’s me!

However, I need some time to unwind and simply think. I’ve noticed how many writers I know also have some sort of craft or art hobby. I think it’s related to the creative impulse, which manifests itself in something done with the hands to refresh the brain – embroidery, enamelling, painting watercolours, making models or miniatures, book-binding, carpentry, baking, rebuilding old cars . . . you name it, we do it. For me, it’s knitting, a very calm, soothing activity, with something to show for it afterwards. Here are a few recent projects:

Slipper socks designed by me

One ball of Caron Cake except for frilled edge

Some Christmas presents:


Indeed, it has been a very busy year, and I don’t see much prospect of 2018 slowing down. I’ll hope to write three books. Perhaps I’ll manage four – it all depends on other commitments. What will happen about the TV series, I wonder?

And what will you be doing in 2018? I wish you a happy, healthy, and successful 2017 – Happy New Year!

Till next time,


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