Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rites of Winter - Medieval Christmas Revels

By Lindsay Townsend
Make we mery, both more and lasse,
For now ys the tyme of Chrystymas
(From a 15th century carol)

When Christianity developed in the ancient Roman world, the winter solstice was already marked at 25th December. Followers of Mithras believed in the ‘unconquered sun’ and also held a feast-day for the sun on December 25th.

Pieter Breugel the Elder - 'The Visit of the Magi at Christmas'
The gospels did not give a date for the birth of Jesus, but ancient beliefs in the Roman Saturnalia, the solstice and sun-worship led to the church choosing December 25th as the time of his nativity.

‘Christmas’ means ‘Christ’s Mass.’ In England in the Middle Ages three masses were celebrated on December 25th - the Angel’s Mass at Midnight, the Shepherds’ Mass at dawn and the Mass of the Divine Word during the day.

Before the three masses of Christmas there was the forty days of Advent. Advent was similar to lent, a time of spiritual reflection and preparation for the coming of Christ. Feasting and certain foods such as meat and wine were meant for be abstained from during advent (something the evil Denzils ignore in my historical romance The Snow Bride, set at this time).

The feasting and revelling time of medieval Christmas began on Christmas Eve and lasted 12 days, ending on Twelfth Night. There was no work done during this time and everyone celebrated. Holly, ivy, mistletoe and other midwinter greens were cut and brought into cottages and castles, to decorate and to add cheer.

The most important element of the revels was the feast. Christmas feasts could be massive – Edward IV hosted one at Christmas in 1482 when he fed and entertained over two thousand people. For rich medieval people there was venison or the Yule boar, a real one, and for poorer folk a pie shaped like a boar, or a pie made from the kidney, liver, and other portions of the deer (the umbles) that the nobles did not want – to make a portion of ‘umble pie'. Carefully hoarded items were also brought out and eaten and other special Christmas foods made and devoured. Mince pies were made with shredded meat and many spices. ‘Frumenty,’ a kind of porridge with added eggs, spices and dried fruit, was served. A special strong Christmas beer was usually brewed to wash all this down, traditionally accompanied with a greeting of 'wes heil' ('be healthy'), to which the proper reply was 'drinc heil'.

There were also other entertainments apart from eating and drinking – singing, playing the lute or harp, playing chess, cards or backgammon and carol dancing.

Presents and gift giving was originally not part of Christmas but of New Year. Romans gave gifts to each other at Kalends (New Year) as well as a week earlier at Saturnalia, and by the twelfth century it seems that children were already receiving gifts to celebrate the day of their protecting saint, St. Nicholas, and the practice soon began to extend to adults as well, initially as charity for the poor. As the Middle Ages wore on, the custom grew of workers on medieval estates giving gifts of produce to the estate owner during the twelve days of Christmas - and in return their lord would put on all those festivities.

Wes heil!

Lindsay Townsend

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Mistletoe--A Plant For All Seasons

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without mistletoe. In the dark, cold days of a northern winter, the evergreen mistletoe, with its glossy green leaves and white berries, promises spring will return.

But mistletoe has other faces. In ancient Britain, the Druids considered mistletoe a sexual symbol. The white berries' juice resembles semen and the Druids deemed the plant itself an aphrodisiac. By extension, mistletoe became associated with love and marriage.

The tradition of kissing may come from the Nordic legend of the death of the sun god, Balder. Loki, the god of mischief, killed Balder with a sprig of mistletoe. The tears of Balder's mother, Frigga, returned Balder to life. In gratitude, Frigga kissed everyone under the mistletoe, transforming the plant's reputation from death to life. Or new life, as in fertility.

A lesser known aspect of mistletoe labels it the plant of peace. Enemies meeting under the mistletoe laid down their arms and declared a day of truce. This time provided them an opportunity to talk out their differences instead of resorting to violence. In Mistletoe Everywhere, my Regency Christmas comedy, I use mistletoe's role as the plant of peace to bring my two estranged lovers back together.

Promise of spring, fertility symbol and plant of peace--truly a plant for all seasons. Which face of mistletoe do you prefer?

Mistletoe Everywhere Available at The Wild Rose Press, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other places ebooks are sold. See my website ( for complete list of vendors.

Thank you all,
Linda Banche
Welcome to My World of Historical Hilarity!

Friday, December 23, 2011

"Thrashing" with holly branches - a seasonal cure

The holly berry that shines so red,
Once was white as wheaten bread.

The holly and the ivy are common Christmas evergreens, still used in England for decorating houses at this time of year, and featured on many Christmas cards.

But until the 20th century holly was used medicinally in the winter to "thrash" chilblains - in other words the treatment was to give the feet a whipping with this spiny bush, an uncomfortable remedy that was supposed to work better if it drew beads of blood, like the berries the tree itself produces.
Margaret Poulter, the herbalist in The Lady's Slipper may well have tried this cure on one of her patients should they have been out in the snow too long. Whilst researching the novel I had to read many herbals and books on plant medicine. In my research I often read of this same strange treatment being used for what was probably arthritis too, and an ointment was made from the berries crushed into a salve to cure 'agues'. It is interesting that most of the conditions it was supposed to cure were 'winter ailments.'

In 1653 Culpeper suggested eating fresh holly berries as a purge, and instructions from a 1694 herbal say to boil the leaf-prickles in a posset which will "wonderfully ease the Cholick" (Pechey)

Many medicines in the 17th century were based on giving the patient a remedy with similar qualities to the complaint - so prickling pains in the stomach were likely to be treated with Holly, however uncomfortable that sounds! Nowadays however, modern medical herbalists use holly very little. And I think I will definitely leave my berries for the birds!
As well as its use in medicine, holly is a wonderful wood for crafts and in the past was used for knife handles
and fan-making, it being strong and light.The wood is very fine-grained, hard, and smooth, and almost ivory in color if it is not stained.

A book I would really recommend to anyone interested in English plant medicine would be Hatfield's Herbal by Gabrielle Hatfield.

 The name Holly derives from the Anglo-Saxon holegn and Old High German Hulis both of which mean "holy".

Thus throughout Europe holly was believed to have sacred or magical properties and bringing holly branches into one's house in winter was supposed to ward off evil and bring good luck.Holly wreaths were also given as gifts during the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which is believed by many to be the festival from which Christmas was originally adapted. It was long regarded as unlucky to leave holly wreaths up beyond Twelfth Night so they are disposed of on New Year's Eve.Although Holly is associated with winter fire it is considered unlucky to burn sprigs of holly. I guess the one on top of the Christmas pudding must be the exception!

You can find out more about Margaret Poulter the herbalist, known also as a 'cunning woman', and her search for a successor to her craft in The Lady's Slipper.
'Her characters are so real that they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf. Highly recommended.'The Historical Novels Review
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'Brilliant saga' Romance Reviews today
'Rich and haunting' Reading the Past
'Utterly captivating' Karen Maitland, author of The Owl Killers
'Riveting narrative'
For the Love of Books

Thank you for reading and A Very Merry Christmas Everyone. 
Don't forget to come back tomorrow for Linda Banche's post about Mistletoe and the Regency Period.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Peter Alan Orchard - 'The Painter of Lemnos'

The new story follows Kindulos, a painter from Bronze Age Lemnos in the Aegean. When he is forced to flee the island for fear of his life, he finds himself amongst the soldiers of Agamemnon who are embroiled in the Trojan War. But he is sent back to the island, with a mission...

The Painter of Lemnos (c.12,000 words) is $1.99.

Buy from:

Smashwords  Diesel  Apple iBooks  Kobo  Barnes and Noble


The dog was barking. The yelping filled the roof space and bounced off the walls of the houses on the street below. It brought Kindulos tottering to his feet, clawing at his ears with both hands and desperate for peace.

It was morning and a thin, grey light washed over the harbour. One of the ships, a broad-hulled merchantman, its square sail lowered, had been launched off the beach and rocked gently in the shallows.

The dog fell silent, its job done, its eyes bright with unfocused satisfaction. In the courtyard below Kindulos and the dog, a thin elderly man stood with the stub of a torch.

'Have you seen him, Senefu?'

'Seen who?'

'The runaway. Had his brother killed, that's all I know. The word's gone round since yesterday.'

'Word from where?'

'From his village, up the coast. The king's making a gift to the Akhaians again, so there's wine coming from all over. One of them probably passed it on, the wine people.'

Senefu began to laugh, a sound like jackals fighting. 'And they told you, Kratas? A miserable, cheating piece of rubbish like you?'

'I live up the road, my friend,' said Kratas evenly. 'I was sent round here. That's all. Other folk went other ways. No-one likes a man who cheats the gods or fratricide, and this one's both.'


There was silence for a moment or two, then Kratas mumbled, 'He's a painter, the man. Walls. Flowers and stuff.'

Kindulos lay down flat on the roof and froze to the stone. Not a word, Senefu, he begged in his mind. Not a word.

'No-one here, Kratas,' Senefu said.

'If you -'

'Don't wag your finger at me. I've seen no-one. Off you go, Kratas. No fun for you here.'

The dog set up a low, determined growling and Kindulos heard Kratas leave. The dull red of his torch brushed against the grey of the street and was gone.

A few moments later Kindulos heard footsteps on the stairs and Senefu's head appeared over the parapet.

'Leave,' he said. 'Now.' Apologetically he turned his palms upwards. 'If you're the one he's looking for, which I think you are, you have to leave the city. Every damn fool with a weapon will know who you are. No painter will be safe, no outsider will be safe and I won't be safe. That old rat wanted to get me out of this house years ago - don't ask, it's not your business - and finding you here would have the mob at my door.'

'So why protect me?'

'I'm not protecting you, I'm getting rid of you. If you're not here, you never came here.'

There was a ripple of sound up the street. From somewhere in the distance came shouting, wheezing and the rattle of hooves on the stones. Kindulos shrank down behind the parapet.

'Calm down, ' Senefu said. 'It's donkeys with cargo. There are ships leaving with supplies for the Akhaians, so the king's sending wine over to the leaders. Keep them drunk, keep them friendly, keep them on the plain outside Ilion.'

Kindulos stood up again, his decision made. 'Then the wine will come from all over the island and no-one will notice a stranger. Back up down the steps, Senefu. I'm going with them.'


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Northumberland for Christmas!

Why not visit the Northumberland Border country this Christmas? FAIR BORDER BRIDE is up for sale on Amazon Kindle at $3. Here's a link to the book trailer:

5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling, page-turning historical romance, 22 Nov 2011
By N. Steven-fountain "Lorna Mack"
Jen Black has crafted a compelling love story set in a time and place of which little is known but about which I was left both informed and wanting more. The historical detail takes you back to 1543 from the very first page. Vivid characters spring to life and you are there with them among the market stalls. You can smell the aromas, feel the fabrics, hear the voices and sense the undercurrents and attractions emerging between the protagonists. A tender, believable love story develops and on the final page you are left feeling slightly bereft as when any terrific story ends.

5.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful bride in a turbulent country..., 31 Oct 2011
By Lindsay Townsend (Yorkshire, UK)
From its fast-paced, compelling opening, 'Fair Border Bride' is an exciting historical romance set in the border lands of northern England in 1543. The romance of Alina and Harry is full of incident and tenderness and is a well-told story, with moments of humour, sensitivity and passion. They are sympathetic, rounded people and believable in their dilemmas and conflicts. The other characters in the novel are also very well-drawn, and the whole is filled with fascinating historical detail about a part of England that is rarely explored in Tudor historical fiction. If you want to lose yourself in vivid adventure and romance, I have no hesitation in recommending this novel by Jen Black.

Blurb: Harry is working for his father, the Deputy Lord Warden of the West March, and adopts the alias Harry Scott. Unhappily, Alina’s father is at feud with the entire family Scott,and flings Harry into the dungeon at Aydon Castle and threatens him with the Leap next day. Alina creeps out of her bed to visit Harry at midnight when the castle is quiet.
Short Excerpt:
“Tell me,” he said, before he forgot all practical things in the delight of her presence. “Your father threatens me with something called the Leap. What is it?”

“She dipped her head, and he heard her sharp intake of breath. “It’s the ravine, Harry.” She pointed towards the dark bulk of the hall. “On the other side is a ravine. It is deep, with the Ay burn at the bottom. Father…he makes prisoners jump from the precipice outside the hall.”

“Ah.” He raised her knuckles to his mouth, and kissed them to dispel the shadowy presence of Death looming in the darkness behind him. He remembered looking into the ravine the night he rode up here. His tongue probed the cleft between her fingers. She gasped. Harry’s blood sang through his body, and he kissed her knuckles again. “How deep, do you think?”

“Twenty times the height of a man, they say.” She shivered and frowned as she watched him nuzzle her fingers. “There are rocks and trees…”

“And no one survives?”

Her face crumpled. “Oh, Harry, sometimes they do, but they are broken, twisted creatures—”

A deep voice sounded from above, and Alina flung up her head. “Matho, please!”

Matho must have agreed, for she turned back to Harry. Her hand had warmed in his and when he kissed it once more, her other hand snaked through the bars and stroked his face, crept to the back of his neck.

“Ah, Alina,” he murmured. “Would that we had no iron bars between us.”

His flesh hardened. If this was his last night on earth, he wanted some pleasure to beguile his thoughts. He reached both hands through the grill and drew her close against the iron bars and in truth she was not reluctant, even when his hand roamed beneath her cloak, caught a ribbon and her nightgown gaped from neck to waist. His palm found the firm weight and curve of her breast and nestled around it.”

Jen Black

Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas in Andalucia

One of the joys of living in Spain is that there's
less commercial fuss made about Christmas, or Navidad as the Spanish call it. There will be twinkling lights, and pontsettias everywhere, and some shops may play Jingle Bells and have a tree. But Christmas itself is fairly low key.

The Nativity scene ‘Nacimiento’ can be seen in plazas in most small towns as well as many Spanish homes and shop windows, often rather splendid. December 24, Nochebuena, is when the main Christmas meal is taken, often roast lamb or suckling pig, a feast that takes place quite late, as in all Spanish fiestas, starting around 10 p.m. and going on until the small hours. Some families will sing carols around the nativity scene which remains without the baby until the stroke of midnight. Others go to midnight Mass ‘La misa del Gallo’, or ‘Rooster Mass’, so named after the bird who announced the birth of Christ. Sometimes, there will be a live Nativity scene, with actors and actresses playing the parts of Mary and Joseph.

Many people, of course, like the rest of us, just watch the Christmas programme’s on TV while enjoying the traditional Turrón (nougat) marzipan, or mantecas (a range of butter-based biscuits) with Cava.

January 6th, Three Kings Day
Traditionally Spanish children do not get their presents on Christmas Day from Santa Claus, or Papa Noel, as he is called. They have to wait until the Fiesta de Los Reyes. What we would call Epiphany. By now we’re packing our Christmas decorations away, but the Spanish are still partying.

In the run up to the 6th of January, children can meet the wise men at some department stores and tell them what they would like for Christmas, just as our children tell Santa Claus.

On the 5th, the excitement starts in the late afternoon or early evening when there is often a parade through the streets of camels, yes, real ones, carrying the three kings, Melchor, Gazpar and Baltasar, who throw sweets into the watching crowds. A custom that no doubt started in Moorish times. A whole procession of dancers and musicians, trailers and even floats, will follow.

Children run around with their little bags catching their gifts. Everyone is having fun, and there are jesters and
medieval market stalls, even ducks and geese for sale.

The little girls dress up in their flamenco dresses, little boys as kings or drummer boys. And the shops remain open until after midnight.

A lovely family day. Truly a sight to see.

Before going to bed the children leave their shoes on the door step so that the Kings will know who to leave presents for. Some Spanish families are starting to put presents under a Christmas tree, perhaps because there are too many to put in a shoe. And just as British children leave a mince pie and a drink for Santa and his reindeer, Spanish children also put out something to eat and drink for Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltazar, and water and grass for their camels.

The children wake in great excitement the next morning to find their presents. For breakfast or after lunch, families eat the typical dessert of the day, the ‘Roscón de los Reyes’.

This is a large ring shaped cake or sweet bread that is decorated with candied fruits, symbolic of the emeralds and rubies that adorned the robes of the three kings, sometimes a gold paper crown is often provided to decorate the cake. Hidden inside it are surprises ‘sorpresas’. The one who finds the lucky prize is King or Queen for the day while he who ends up with the unlucky bean is expected to pay for next years Kings’ Cake – and they are not cheap!

And so another day of feasting commences. January 7 is a very quiet day in Spain. No businesses open, everyone at home in recovery.

Feliz Navidad to you all.