Thursday 29 October 2015

Hares and Rabbits in Medieval England - by Regan Walker

A warm welcome to guest Regan Walker, who posts on the 'hop'-topic of Hares and Rabbits in Medieval England. G x
Medieval rabbits

 Though both hares and rabbits existed in medieval England, the rabbit was a rare beast and much sought after for both its meat and its fur. Unlike the hare, the rabbit was not native to Britain, but was deliberately introduced from France or the western Mediterranean by the 13th century. While the hare is considered native to Britain, it is possible the Romans may have introduced it. However, there are no records of them in Britain before Norman times, the 11th century.

My new novel, Rogue Knight, is set in Yorkshire in 1069-70 when William the Conqueror came north to claim Northumbria and engaged in the debacle we know today as the “Harrying of the North” causing the deaths of as many as 100,000 people.
The Yorkshire Dales

I like to think that some people, chased from their homes by William’s army and deprived of the ability to grow food, might have survived on the brown hare, native to Yorkshire. Certainly my heroine and her family, hiding out from the Normans, dined on hare while living in the woods.

The brown hare is generally larger than a rabbit. They have long, black-tipped ears and a tall and leggy appearance. They are timid and fast runners. They prefer grassland fields and some woodland in their habitat. In the Peak District of England, you will find the smaller mountain hare.
The Brown Hare by Whitfield Benson

Unlike young rabbits, that are born blind and furless, totally dependent upon their mother, young brown hares, called leverets, are born fully formed and active, weaned in a month. Their average life expectancy is three years. Rabbits raised in captivity might live longer. In the Middle Ages, rabbit-warrens were almost the sole source of supply for rabbits and that is one reason they were so valuable and closely guarded.

Throughout the medieval era, beginning after the Norman Conquest the right to hunt and kill any beast or game was a privilege granted by the king. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in a verse written shortly after his death states, “He made great protection for the game and imposed laws for the same, that who so slew hart or hind should be made blind.” (William the Conqueror seemed to love poking out people’s eyes.) And, as for the hares, “…did he decree that they should go free.” (Meaning they could not be hunted for the Chronicle indicates “Powerful men complained of it and poor man lamented it, but so fierce was he that he cared not for the rancor of them all…”)
Brown Hare by Matt Neale
It appears that the royal forests of the kind that existed in the 12th century were, thus, a Norman creation. The Domesday Book, written in 1086 at the order of William I, indicates that the royal forest was created though a combination of eviction and the taking of woodland and uninhabited land. At the height of the royal forest practice in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, fully one-third of the land area of southern England was designated as royal forest.

Hunting in the royal forests was the privilege of the king alone. Outside of those areas, the king would sell hunting rights by means of a charter that allowed the killing of the “beasts of warren”—pheasant, partridge, hare and rabbit. Hence the right to keep and kill rabbits was the exclusive right of the owner of the “free-warren”. Grants of warren—the right to hunt hares—can be found from the reign of at least William II and perhaps William I.
Hare and Knight

Henry I, as reported in the Gesta Stephani, “claimed for himself sole hunting rights of wild beasts throughout England…” That doesn’t leave a poor man many options to feed his family, but perhaps a hare in a remote area found its way into a poor family’s stewpot.

A huge thank you to Regan for this fascinating and hare-raising post! As ever Regan lives and breathes history, and I'm grateful to her for sharing that love with us. 
So let's 'hop' to it and find out about Regan's latest release...Rogue Knight.

"Mesmerizing medieval romance! A vivid portrayal of love flourishing amidst the turbulence of the years after the Norman Conquest."
-- Kathryn Le Veque, USA Today Bestselling Author

York, England 1069… three years after the Norman Conquest

The North of England seethes with discontent under the heavy hand of William the Conqueror, who unleashes his fury on the rebels who would dare to defy him. Amid the ensuing devastation, love blooms in the heart of a gallant Norman knight for a Yorkshire widow.


Angry at the cruelty she has witnessed at the Normans’ hands, Emma of York is torn between her loyalty to her noble Danish father, a leader of the rebels, and her growing passion for an honorable French knight.

Loyal to King William, Sir Geoffroi de Tournai has no idea Emma hides a secret that could mean death for him and his fellow knights.


War erupts, tearing asunder the tentative love growing between them, leaving each the enemy of the other. Will Sir Geoffroi, convinced Emma has betrayed him, defy his king to save her?

Regan Walker on Facebook
Pinterest storyboard for the Rogue Knight (Always worth checking out!) 

Sunday 25 October 2015

Unofficial London: The Grizzly Story of Bunhill Fields

“Elizabeth Hare, lately condemned for high treason in clipping his Majesty’s coin, was according to her sentence, burnt alive in Bunhill Field”. Diary of Narcissus Luttrell October 30th, 1683
This one sentence is intriguing as it yields up not one story but three: Elizabeth Hare, coin clipping, and that of the place called Bunhill Fields.
The entrance to Bunhill Fields Memorial Gardens in the modern day
In a forthcoming post on the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog, I discuss the crime for which Elizabeth Hare is condemned: Coin clipping. In this post, let’s investigate the intriguing mention of “Bunhill Fields”. (Oh, and in case I forget to mention it later, isn’t the diarist’s name fantastic: Narcissus.)

The Long History of Bunhill Fields
Had you heard of Bunhill Fields, London? I hadn’t, so I was keen to find out more.
Intriguingly Bunhill Fields is linked to two more famous areas; Smithfield and Moorfields, which warrants a brief digression
·          Smithfield Market: Since the 13th century Smithfield hosted a market, traditionally a trading place for livestock. It was also a place of execution (like Bunhill) and was the Scottish hero William Wallace met his end.  Also “Smith” was a derivation of “Smooth” meaning flat, so the area was originally named for being a flat field.
Smithfield from a made circa 1720

·         Moorfields (which gave its name to the famous Moorfield’s Eye Hospital, London – although this is now on a different site) was an open patch of ground within the city walls. It was to Moorfields that many Londoners fled to as a place of safety during the Great Fire of 1666.
Detail from a map of Moorfields circa 1550

In the 12th century Bunhill Fields, Smithfield, and Moorfields belonged to the Manor of Finsbury. The area has been used as a burial ground since Saxon times. In this context the name “Field” came to mean an open piece of land to be used for communal purposes other than the cultivation of crops. Some of the activities that went on there include grazing animals, bleaching linen cloth in the sun, archery practice and other such activities that required space.
Old Saint Paul's Cathedral
Note the churchyard in the foreground
The area was managed by the Corporation of London but between 1514 and 1867 ownership passed to the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Our area of interest was known as Bone Hill – because it was literally a dumping ground for bones. Any hollows in the field were filled in with rubbish such as rags and bones from Smithfield shambles. Indeed in 1549 St Paul’s Cathedral had a clear out in their Charnel House and over one thousand cartloads of human bones were taken to “Bone Hill” for disposal.
The ruins of Old Saint Paul's as it appeared
around 7 years after the Great Fire of 1666
The Charnel House had become full as a result of moving dead Londoners buried in St Paul’s Churchyard, out of the graveyard after a certain period of time. After burial, a respectable amount of time was left to let the flesh rot away, and then the bones were dug up and moved into storage in the Charnel House to await resurrection. However, by 1549 the Charnel House was full to overflowing hence the unceremonius move to Bone Hill.

These measures managed the problem of space for burials for about a century, but by 1665 the graveyard at St Paul’s was once more full. So Alderman Sir John Robinson entered into an agreement to use land at Bone Hill as an extension of the cathedral’s burial ground.
William Blake's gravestone
in Bunhill Fields graveyard
Indeed, Bunhill, as it was now know, was home to the graves of many great or famous people such as John Bunyan (died 1688) Daniel Defoe (D.1731, author of Robinson Crusoe) and William Blake (D.1827) Of course, it also seems the area of Bunhill Fields was also used as a place of public execution, such as for Elizabeth Hare.

And in the modern day? Bunhill Fields still exists, but as a public park managed by the City of London.  Around 2,000 monuments and head stones still remain, but the grizzly spectacle of public executions has long since finished. 

Sunday 18 October 2015

Cats and Law in Medieval Times

There is a long association between cats and the law, with some dating back to the 10th century and the laws of Howel Dda.
Detail from the book of the Law of Howel Dda
"Dda" means "good".

The King of South Wales, Howel Dda, perceived that the customs of his beloved kingdom were open to abuse. His solution was to call together a meeting of noblemen, archbishops, and bishops to create a framework of binding laws. During Lent, the company spent time together fasting and praying. The King then selected 12 of the wisest men to work with a doctor of law, Blegywryd, to examine the resulting legislation for soundness.
The Laws of Howel Dda

It was decided that because of Wales’ large size (remember this is over a 1,000 years ago when travel was either on foot or horseback, so the distances must have seemed immense) three different groups, or Codes, of laws were needed. These were the Vendotian, Dimetian, and Gwentian Codes.
In these Codes there are several interesting laws pertaining to cats.

For a start, a cat was one of the necessary components required to make up a community. It was written that a lawful hamlet consisted of nine buildings, one kiln, one plough, one cock, one bull, one horse, and one cat. (Notice the omission of dogs and horses).
In the Dimetian Code it states that if husband and wife separate, then the husband get the cat! That is unless there were several cats in the household, then the man got first pick of the felines and the wife the rest.

When selling a cat, again according to the Dimetian Code it was the vendor’s responsibility to vouch that the cat won’t go out caterwauling every night (!) but is a good mouser with a full set of teeth and claws, and a good mother to her kittens.
The Gwentian Code writes about the qualities of a cat, which was basically to be perfect in tooth, tail, and claw, and (here is the bizarre bit) without ‘marks of fire’. Again, for understandable reasons a cat was also to be a good mouser and mouser – and not caterwaul every moon.

Each cat also had a price. The penalty for killing a cat was four pence. But for a cat that guards a house or barn, the miscreant must pay the equivalent amount of good wheat required to bury a cat that hanging by its tail tip so her nose touched the ground.
The Venedotian Code gives a more detailed account of how much a cat was worth.

“A cat from the night it is kittened until it shall open its eyes is a legal penny,
From that time until it shall kill mice, two legal pence,
And after it shall kill mice, four legal pence.”

To put this in perspective, one penny was equivalent to a lamb, kid or goose, whilst four pence would buy a sheep or goat. All of which makes me wonder how common cats were in 10th century Wales. After all, you have only to think of how quickly a large feral cat population can become established in our cities, to understand how readily cats breed. For cats to be prized as highly as a sheep – an animal which produces both wool and meat – it makes me suspect our feline friends were much more rare than in the modern age. 

Sunday 11 October 2015

Black Cats: Lucky or Unlucky?

I’m guardian to a black cat: Lucky for me but not so lucky for the mice he eats (they don’t see him coming.)

“It is a very unfortunate thing for a man to meet…an ill-favoured woman, a rough-footed hen, a shag-haired dog, or a black cat.” 1620 Anon

In the UK the image of a black cat is commonly used as a notation for good luck, but this hasn’t always been the case. Indeed, whether a cat brings good fortune or bad depends on location, historical period, and the circumstances.

For example, at the beginning of the 20th century in Yorkshire fishing village it said a black cat brought good luck when strolling through the village, but was a bad omen on-board ship. Interestingly, having a horseshoe (another symbol of good luck) also became a harbinger of doom when on a ship, so perhaps water brings about a reversal of fortune.

But oh the inconsistencies!
In 1890, John Nicholson wrote about local folklore and observed:
“It is considered lucky to have [own] a black cat, but unlucky to meet one.”

It seems the situation in which you encounter the cat matters, and there are a number of superstitions that are influenced by the cat’s ‘direction of travel’. For example, a black cat crossing your path is lucky, but to drive a cat away from your door is unlucky.
“An Oxford landlady told us …she had driven a black cat away from her door…and since then she had buried 23 relatives.”  Wright. 1913

However, a black cat crossing your path is lucky is a little perverse, because the explanation is the cat attracts the bad luck to his unlucky shoulders, thereby freeing you of the burden.

To find out why black cats are so steeped in superstition we need to go back to the days when cats were persecuted by the Christian church. The sleek, mysterious, and enigmatic cat became associated with witches, and black cats especially so. With an undeserved reputation for being witches’ familiars, the black cat’s coat colour doubly linked to the devil. And with severe punishments for being found guilty of witchcraft, you could say it was unlucky to own a black cat.

To put a modern twist on things, rescue shelters find it more difficult to home black cats than others. This isn’t for any reasons of superstition, but because they are more difficult to photograph and get a good picture. And with the popularity of social media everyone wants to share photos of their cat…so they pick any colour but black. Shame! 

Sunday 4 October 2015

Hey Diddle Diddle: Cats and Nursery Rhymes

I never was a huge fan of nursery rhymes. Although they are meant to entertain small children, I always found them slightly sinister. This is perhaps backed up by the eldest son, who when little used to think the words to “Baa Baa Black Sheep” went:

Baa, baa, black sheep
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the monster ….

Obviously this should have been master, but my son misheard.
Perhaps I would have liked these rhymes more if they featured cats. So let's see what is on offer.

The Cat and the Fiddle
Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon,
The little dog laughed to see such fun
And the dish ran away with the spoon

What is the significance of the “cat and the fiddle”?
There are several different explanations.
One is that the cat is code for Queen Elizabeth I, and is a comment on her evasive behavior with foreign diplomats. She is famous for skillfully manipulating those emissaries sent by foreign princes to negotiate a marriage contracct with Elizabeth. Some believe this nursery rhyme is a comment on her ability to fiddle and pull the diplomates' strings and play with them as a cat does mice – especially as she never married and was famous for being the virgin Queen.
However, nice as this story is, sources believe Hey Diddle Diddle was written around 200 years after her reign – which hardly makes it topical and top of the rhyme-makers mind.
A representation of Bastet
holding a sistrum

Perhaps more convincing is the explanation likening the words to a description of a type of ancient Egyptian instrument called a sistrum. Many ancient depictions of the cat-goddess Bastet show her holding a sistrum which is fiddle-shaped. Intriguingly, the cow and the moon could be represented by another Egyptian goddess, Hathor, who bore horns on her head between which is suspended a large disc.

Alternatively, the “cat and fiddle” could be a corruption of the Latin expression “catus fideles” meaning faithful cat, but to the untrained ear sounding like ‘cat and fiddle’.

The Cat and the Pudding String
Sing, sing, what shall I sing?
The cat’s run away with the pudding string.
Do, do, what shall I do?
The cat’s run away with the pudding too.

This rhyme is altogether more straightforward. If you’ve ever made traditional Christmas puddings, you’ll have some idea what this is about. The pudding ingredients are mixed and then placed within a large muslin cloth which is gathered around the mix and tied off. The pudding is then steamed or boiled.
Obviously, a playful  cat took a fancy to the securing string and played with it. Perhaps the cook saw what kitty was about and chastised her, at which point the cat takes off with the string in her mouth and pulls the pudding after her.
Simple! (Must have been a small pudding though.)

Going to Saint Ives
As I was going to Saint Ives,
I met a man with seven wives;
Every wife had seven sacks;
Every sack had seven cats;
Every cat had seven kits
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives.
How many were there going to Saint Ives?
Beautiful St Ives on the Cornish coast of England

This one is my favorite because on the face of things it’s a simple test of multiplication. [St Ives is a town in Cornwall.]
However, is it instead a trick question?
Can you be confident the man with seven wives was indeed going towards St Ives, or could he and his entourage have been walking away (and therefore making the math considerably easier!!)
What do you think?