Thursday, 8 December 2016

'Getting Pregant the Medieval Way' by Karen Maitland

St Anne, with her daughter the Virgin Mary
and grandson, Jesus.
There’s been much discussion recently about whether certain expensive treatments sold by some private fertility treatment centres actually work. For centuries, women desperate to conceive have tried many different methods of getting pregnant, particularly on this day of the year – 8th December – because this was considered by the Medieval Church to be the day when a woman who wanted a baby was most likely to conceive.

8th December was the Feast Day on which the Church celebrated St Anne’s conception of her daughter, the Virgin Mary. Therefore, a woman praying at one of the important shrines to Mary, such as Rayne, near Braintree in Essex, stood a good chance of becoming pregnant.

But the 8th December was also the feast day of a 6th Century saint, St Budoc and his conception proved not quite as happy for his mother, Azenor. According to legend when she revealed that she was pregnant her husband accused her of adultery, stuffed her in barrel and threw it into the English Channel. Azenor gave birth to Budoc whilst floating in the sea, and the barrel containing mother and babe was eventually washed ashore in Ireland where Azenor provided for her son, the future saint, by becoming laundress at Beau Port monastery, near Waterford.

In the Medieval and Tudor period the inability of a noble woman to give her husband an heir could, as we know, result in him divorcing her, incarcerating her in a nunnery or even finding a way of killing her, so women of all classes often resorted to drastic methods to conceive.

In fishing communities, women were advised by their mothers to make love when the tide was coming in as that would wash a baby into the womb.

The powerful mandrake with the mad and dying dog
which had been used to pull it from the earth.
It was also a long-held belief that if a woman was having trouble conceiving, a friend should give her parsley seeds to plant. As the parsley grew, a child would grow inside her. Since parsley is very slow to germinate – ‘the seeds go down to the devil seven times before green rises above the earth’ – this may have been simply a way of helping the woman to ‘relax and give it time.’ However, on no account was the woman to eat the parsley as they also believed if it was eaten three times a day it would produce an abortion. Another widely used herb, for those who could afford it, was the very costly mandrake root which is mentioned as an aid to fertility as far back as the Book of Genesis.

Since ancient times fish have been associated with fertility. The salmon was a symbol of a woman's sexual organs. One medieval recipe for getting pregnant was to take a fish that had been found inside another fish and fry it with a hare’s liver until both were dried. Grind to powder with flour and drink in water. The hare was linked to the ancient goddesses of fertility, so many fertility remedies involved consuming parts of a hare, including drinking powders made from its dried skin or stomach. If the woman wanted to conceive a boy she should drink a powder made from “hare’s eggs” – the testicles of a male hare – before making love.

Some fertility aids sound decidedly unhygienic today. One calls for a woman to insert the brains of a male and female bird into her ‘womb’ before sleeping with her husband. Another to smear the fat and brains of a dove on her ‘privy parts’ for three days, or the brains and blood of a bat. One ‘cure’ was for a woman to sit or lie above a pot in which the lungs and liver of sheep were boiling in wine, so that the fumes entered her womb. Only when this had thoroughly ‘warmed her’, should her husband lie with her, and then only in a warm and draught-free room.

Women could buy amulets of herbs or charms from cunning women or they could make one themselves from a hen’s egg containing a live chick. The whole thing was burned and the ashes tied in bag bound with green and white thread and hung round the neck.

A number of communities also had stone-keepers. There were many sites which, from ancient times, had been places where women would make offerings to the old gods or spirits to help them conceive, these included figures of men and animals carved into the hillside, certain standing stones, some rocking stones and springs such as The Well of Fertility (Tobat an Torraidh) on the Isle of Sky, to which cattle were driven to drink to help them conceive and which women used for the same purpose. Many of these ancient pagan sites were destroyed or taken over by the Church during the medieval period, but small stones were carried away from these places and handed down through the generations to the stone-keepers. 

Photographer: Lisa Jarvis. 'The Maiden Stone, Traprain Law.'
Legend has it that if a woman walks naked through
the gap she will conceive.
If a woman wanted to conceive she went to the stone-keeper who allowed her to hold the stone and the spirit of the place from which the stone had been taken was believed to call a child into her womb. Even today, there is a male stone-keeper in Lincolnshire who has a stone which has been used for generations and is said to have originally come from Cahir, County Limerick, Ireland. Money never changed hand for this service, but the woman was usually required to leave some kind of offering which was personal to her such as a rag from a favourite dress.

Up until 1920’s the pillars of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London were believed to have been hewn from stone taken from an ancient fertility site and were regularly embraced by women who wanted to conceive, as was a granite block on a hill in Glenavon, Grampian.

Milking a reindeer.
Drinking milk of various animals or drying it and using it a pessary was also recommended by many medieval physicians because of the obvious link between lactation and pregnancy. Donkey milk, horse, deer and bear milk were among those thought be most effective in aiding conception. I wonder who volunteered to milk the bears!

But Christmas will soon be upon us with its bunches of mistletoe which have long been associated with fertility. A medieval woman who wanted to conceive would tie a sprig close to her belly or around her arm, so be very careful where you put your mistletoe this festive season!

Wednesday, 7 December 2016 Adèle Geras

I am posting the link below to Lantana Publishing's page about the book which has just been published. It's called A WISP OF WISDOM, and brings together many writers and a wonderful illustrator in a volume which was created to raise money for the Cameroon region but which we all hope will be enjoyed by readers in the UK as much as by their African counterparts.

This will tell you about the origins of the books and let you know which writers are involved. The illustrator is Emmie van Biervliet

Here are the illustrations for my story.

But what I want to do here, briefly, is talk a bit about my experience of Africa. I've never visited the Cameroons, but have lived at different times in Nigeria, The Gambia and Tanzania. Also, although I can't remember it, I spent some months in Egypt as a young mother used to tell stories of how she carried me in her arms up and down and up and down to stop me crying and waking the neighbour in the next door room (we were in a hotel) only to discover the next day that he was completely deaf.

When my father was posted to Nigeria in 1950, I was 6. My mother looked up Nigeria in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and was horrified. She said to my dad. "But Laurie, there are two pages of diseases you can get!"Nevertheless, to Nigeria we went. I remember nothing but good things. I went to a wonderful school attached to the University in Ibadan. That was where my teacher and my class gave me the book, OUR ISLAND STORY, about which I've written a blog post on the History Girls. We then moved to Lagos and I can remember tradesmen coming to the door of our house with the most wonderful crocodile and snakeskin shoes and bags. Then we went to Onitcha, where there were fields of lilies outside our house and where the bats came out at twilight in such numbers that we had to retire to the safety of my parents' double bed under the mosquito net to avoid them. I am terrified by the very thought of bats to this very day. Then in Kaduna, near Kano, I did get one of those diseases that my mother dreaded: jaundice. I wasn't terribly ill but I remember going to the doctor and giving some blood from the inside of my elbow. I've not been keen on intravenous stuff ever since...he had some difficulty finding a vein.

Below is a photo of me and my dad taken around that time.

My parents then went to the Gambia. My father was Assistant Attorney General in what was then a British colony. Here I had a really wonderful time, whenever I visited. By this time, about 1956, I was at boarding school and used to go out every summer for the long school holidays. I usually flew on BOAC, on a plane exactly like the one seen recently on THE CROWN on Netflix, taking the young Princess Elizabeth to Kenya before she came to the throne. In those days, pilots used to invite children to visit the cockpit to have a go at flying the plane! The exclamation mark is intended to express my wonder, both at those innocent times and at my own daring. I am now flying phobic and haven't been up in the air for 20 years.

There was the sea. My father was permanently dark brown and loved lying in the sun, on the sand, stretched out with no Factor anything on his skin. I've always been very unkeen on the sun and have worn a hat and cover ups on the beach even when I was extremely young.

The Bishop of the Gambia was a friend of my parents and one day, he took me to visit the sick. We went to a part of what was then called Bathurst where Africans lived. It wasn't a shanty town but it was different from the houses where the Government officials and Colonial staff lived. I was struck by the contrast in the way our lives were organised. This was the first time I'd ever thought: how come we live like this when they live like that? How come they are servants in our houses? Because you couldn't escape that this relationship was what was common and the injustice of it was clear. I was present at a moment just before Independence from Colonial Rule was happening all over the Continent.

I wasn't thinking about such matters. I was busy falling in love. Dakar, the French colony, was next door to Gambia and somehow young men who were much more glamorous than what I'd been used to in England appeared at parties in the Club: French men! Young cadet soldiers, mostly. They were older than me by some years. I was fourteen and fifteen when I started going to dances at the Club, and the first person I fell in love with was eighteen. These dances were innocent affairs by today's standards. My father would drive me there and wait till the fun was over, often very late into the night. He read back numbers of Punch and the Illustrated London News in a quiet room and then drove me back to town when the dancing was done. He had no objection to my flirting with these men, but had no intention of letting me drive home with anyone who'd been drinking.

When I returned to school, I always took with me a huge biscuit tin full of peanuts, roasted at home. Gambia was famous for its groundnuts, as they were called, and I loved them. I still do. They didn't last long when they were shared out among my friends back in England.

When my father was in Gambia he invented a method of voting that cut out corruption. I'm not at all sure how it worked but it involved different coloured marbles being dropped into an oil drum. Here's a picture.

His idea was hailed as a real break through at the time and I wish I'd paid more attention to how it operated. I imagine each candidate had his colour...and it was 'his' in those days...and you put an appropriately- coloured one into the drum to indicate your preference. This method or a variant of it is still being used. It's just ousted Gambia's ruler after years and years in favour of a young man who used to work at Argos in Kilburn, I think. Good luck to him and I hope Gambia thrives under his rule.

From Gambia we went to Tanzania. Then, in 1960 or so, it was still Tanganyika and it was the most wonderful place. I loved it. Here's a picture of me on our verandah.

That's the sea behind me and Zanzibar is so close that I could smell the cloves and cinnamon from where I was sitting when the wind direction was right. Julius Nyerere was our next door neighbour. My father was by then Chief Justice and oversaw the handing over of power at Independence. FREEDOM was the slogan of the day: UHURU!We used to sing a song to a calypso kind of tune:

"Uhuru, uhuru, this is what we're going to do:

No more work and no more tax,

We'll sit in the sun and just relax!"

I did a few Saturday jobs while I was there on my summer holidays. I led guided tours in French to the jute factory and other local sights for tourists on the cruises stopping in Dar-es-salaam, and was a bit offended to be told I had a Belgian accent. I also read some poetry on the radio to help students up country who were studying for British Ordinary Level School Certificate. One of the poems was Balder Dead by Matthew Arnold.

I've not been back to Africa since 1962. It's changed enormously since then, of course, but these are some of my own memories. I hope very much that everyone who buys A WISP OF WISDOM will enjoy the stories written by me and my co-contributors.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Proper Olden Days

I love old school magazines. In 2004, when I was a teacher, I based an exhibition about the school’s experiences in World War One largely around a stack of 1914-1919 school magazines. In 2014, I revisited these magazines as stimulus for my story ‘Each Slow Dusk’ in Walker’s The Great War. I’ve also plundered them for convincing Christian names for my 1918-set teen WIP, and I'm always moved by the juxtaposition of hockey matches and deaths on the Western Front. 

As I’ve confessed here before, I was always a History Girl. ‘Tell me about the olden days,’ I would beg my gran, born in 1908, and she obliged with stories of the shirt factory and Sunday school and naughty Aunt Annie smuggling a kitten up to bed in her pinny. I was enchanted by the kitten but even more by the pinny. The pinny was proof that Aunt Annie came from the real olden days.

The pupils from the magazines – all those Ediths and Kathleens and Gilberts  -- didn’t go to school with Gran and Aunt Annie – they were just that bit older and further up the social scale – but they might have sat beside them on the tram.

Mummy, born in 1947, came from the olden days too: not quite so olden but still firmly black and white, gym frocks and Elvis.

Then the world shifted to boring colour when I was born in 1968.

Because I didn’t come from the olden days. Obviously. And because I don’t have children, nobody has ever asked me, ‘Tell me about when you were a wee girl in the olden days.’ So, though I know rationally, that I lived through history – rather a lot of history, given that I grew up in seventies Belfast, I rarely, in my imagination, think of it that way. History was big, and happening somewhere else.

And then, last week, I saw this tweeted picture from my old school library. 

I was charmed. Elizabeth and I are still best friends, and I’m still trying to encourage younger people to read.  I’d forgotten about the Junior Library Club. But there it was, a tiny bit of the history of my own old school, and of my own olden days. 1987, it would have been. Not long enough to be proper olden days, of course. And then I thought again. When I was ten, my mum was thirty. The olden days she described were less than two decades ago. 1987 is nearly thirty years ago. 

I do come from the proper olden days. I have only just realised it, thanks to Twitter and an old school magazine.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Goldfinch - Joan Lennon

By the time this post goes up, I will have seen this little gem in the flesh.  But if I hadn't watched that BBC 4 documentary on Still Life back last year (I posted a HG blog about it here) and got all excited about, among other things, 17th century Dutch painting, I would most likely not have bothered.  Or even noticed.  

It's The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) and it is on loan for just 6 weeks from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.  You'll need to get a shift on if you want to visit it there, as it leaves again after 18th December.  

The visiting Goldfinch, in situ at the National Gallery of Scotland.  
As you can see, Housekeeping is taking this special visitor in its stride.

If, however, Edinburgh isn't within visiting distance for you, here is a short video of the rather sweet Senior Curator Tico Seifert, speaking about the painting's importance and Fabritius' place in art history - a student of Rembrandt and an inspiration to Vermeer.  (Don't be cross that he doesn't actually show you the painting - I suspect moving the camera was going to be a step too far.  I liked the helpful human podium for his notes which gradually drifts into frame ...)

The Goldfinch.  Tiny.  Beautiful.  The sort of image the word exquisite was invented for.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Silver Skin.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Ōtūmoetai Pā: an 18th century fortified village by Debra Daley

Last month I wrote about the discovery in my neighbourhood of extensive food storage pits of late 18th century origin that had once belonged to the large pā, or fortified village, above the shore of Ōtūmoetai peninsula in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty. The find was an exciting one since there are relatively few material traces of Māori life before European settlement. The dimensions of the storage pits suggested that at least two thousand people were living in and around Ōtūmoetai Pā at the time of James Cook’s first expedition to New Zealand in 1769. In this month’s post, I would like to write a little more about this particular local pā, which was home to the Ngai Tamarawaho hapū (clan) of the Ngāi Te Rangi tribe. 

An impression of the pā at Ōtūmoetai in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. Philip Perry.
Ōtūmoetai Pā covered an area of about four acres, centred on an escarpment that looked over Tauranga Harbour and out towards the South Pacific Ocean. The pā was a complex construction encompassing outer barriers of ditches, banks, palisaded ramparts and fighting stages on multiple terraces. These earthworks were arranged around inner fenced compounds where kin-groups lived in groups of timber-framed dwellings with reed walls and thatched roofs. The naturalist Joseph Banks, who had been on board Cook’s first expedition to New Zealand, described Māori dwellings (whare) as ‘mean and low', but conceded that 'they most perfectly resist all inclemencies of the weather.’ The interior of the whare (house) was spare. A fire burned in the centre of the single room upon the floor and the entrance served for a chimney. Tools and weaponry were stored in the house and high-born families kept intricately carved boxes containing feathers and other valuable items for personal adornment, but there was no furniture except for a square of boards joined together for a bed, with a mattress made of a thick layer of grass and dried ferns. Latrines and rubbish heaps for food scraps and waste served each cluster of houses. A typical pā of this time can be seen in the lithograph made by artist John Webber, who accompanied Captain Cook on his third Pacific expedition.  

John Webber. The inside of a hippah in New Zealand, 1784. The lithograph shows a pā (or ‘hippah’) with houses constructed of reeds in the Marlborough Sounds.
The dwellings are similar in a sketch of a pā in Wellington made some sixty years later by Captain William Mein Smith, a surveyor-general engaged by the New Zealand Company in 1839, and in photographs taken by Herbert Deveril later in the 19th century. 

Captain W. Mein Smith. Pipitea marae, Wellington, c.1840.

Herbert Deveril. Te Rangi Tahau on the porch of his whare, c.1875.

The site of Ōtūmoetai Pā was, and is still, an advantageous one. A tidal estuary, the waters of the large bay, and the ocean beyond provided an abundance of food. Women gathered shellfish and men went out fishing with bone hooks and flax nets weighted with stone sinkers. These accomplished offshore sailors paddled their canoes to outer islands to collect obsidian and immature petrels (muttonbirds) for food, and red ochre for body painting. Mauao, the volcano at the harbour’s entrance, was a useful place marker. A favoured hapuku (groper) fishing spot could be found by lining up Mauao’s western slope with a tall tītoki tree that grew at the rear of the pā. This venerable tree, still extant, is now more than three hundred years old.

Joseph Jenner Merrett. A Meeting of Visitors,  c.1843. View of a pōwhiri (welcome)
between two Māori groups outside Ōtūmoetai Pā with the outline of
Mauao (Mt Maunganui) in the background. Tauranga Libraries.

To the west of the pā, rainforested hills provided berries and bird life, and timber, and eeling places in the rivers that flowed into the sea. In a pattern that continued well into the twentieth century, Tauranga Māori made use of these rich resources by migrating between inland areas and the coast to gather food and tend crops. Excess was preserved – fish were wrapped in fern leaf, shellfish threaded on blades of rushes, birds stored in fat in gourds – and kept in raised storehouses together with large calabashes of water.
Flax and kūmara (sweet potato) were the principal crops and they were treated with reverence. Each flax plant was regarded as a family, the central shoot being the child and the leaves surrounding it the parents. In order to maintain the plant’s vitality, only the outermost leaves – the grandparents – were harvested. Women softened the blades of flax by beating them with stone pounders. They wove the flax into hoop nets and cordage, plaited it into mats and baskets and worked it into a silky fibre for clothing, which was similar in weight and drape to sweat-shirt fabric.

Gottfried Lindauer. Women Weaving Flax Baskets, 1903. Auckland Art Gallery.
Māori wore a diversity of garments – cloaks, aprons or kilts or a ‘girdle of many platted strings made of leaves’, and various closely woven mats worn next to the skin. Both men and women bored holes in their ears, which were kept extended by plugs of feathers, bones or wood. Sometimes women wore bracelets or anklets made of shells or small bones, while the men hung greenstone tiki around their necks or the tooth of a shark or a whale. Women sometimes wore their hair short, cut with sharpened shells, or tied it behind the head, or wore it at shoulder length. On occasion, women cropped their hair as a mourning gesture.

A woman photographed by the Foy Brothers, late 19th century,
with cropped hair decorated with huia feathers.
British Museum. 
Sydney Parkinson, the botanical artist on the Endeavour in 1769, recorded that men on the east coast of the North Island '... had their hair most curiously brought up to their crowns, rolled round, and knotted.' Parkinson’s portrait of a chief shows an example of the style. Long hair was oiled and bound it in various ways with flax and adorned with combs, carved from wood or whale, bird and human bone, and feathers.

Sydney Parkinson. Portrait of a New Zeland Man, from a sketch made in 1769.
Many men and some women wore facial moko (tattooes) to varying degrees.
Kūmara tubers were planted in spring with some ceremony in scattered communal gardens. Everybody worked in the gardens, including rangatira (chiefs) – but they were exempt from carrying the small gravel, obtained from the bottom of streams, which was brought in baskets during the winter by women to prepare the planting ground.

Kūmara tubers. Before the planting began, prayers were offered to Rongomātāne,
the god of kūmara, and other cultivated plants, to secure goodwill with regard
to the harvest. 
The tubers were planted in mounds in soil that has been amended with wood ash and were considered tapu until they were ready for harvest. Low fences served as breaks against the prevailing westerly wind at Ōtūmoetai, which can be gusty in early summer with a tendency to dry out the soil.

Te Parapara Māori Garden, Hamilton Gardens. Photograph by Michal Klajban.
A storehouse overlooking a mounded kūmara garden. Māori used a cord
to plant the rows of kūmara in a straight line. The seed tuber was set
with its sprouting end towards the warmth of the north.

The mauri (life force) of the kūmara, and hence the fertility of the crop,
were protected by carved, wooden atua kiato (god sticks)
fixed around the perimeter of the gardens.

After harvesting in autumn, the kūmara was steamed and dried before being stacked on the sand-strewn floors of underground pits over winter. The pits at Ōtūmoetai had the capacity to hold up to a tonne of tubers.

Once the kūmara had been harvested and placed in storage, the people could lead a more itinerant lifestyle, trading, or gathering other foodstuffs needed for winter. They might wander the beach or the banks of streams looking for good water-smoothed cobbles that could be used to crush the red ochre brought back from Motiti Island, or for heating the earth ovens in which food was cooked. Joseph Banks described the ovens as ‘holes in the ground filled with provision and hot stones and covered over with leaves and earth’. Small fish and birds were generally roasted over an open fire on a skewer. Kūmara, taro, large fish and dogs were cooked in the ovens.
 Cook and Banks marvelled at the vitality of the Māori they encountered. That is hardly surprising given a diet that was simple and moderate, plenty of fresh air and exercise, and an absence of sugar and alcohol. They tended to be taller and more robust than Europeans, Banks noted. He was particularly struck by the number of healthy old people in the population. Some even appeared to be in their eighties, ‘and of these, few or none were decrepid, indeed the greater seemd in vivacity and chearfullness to equal the young, indeed to be inferior to them in nothing but the want of equal strength and agility.’ Aged men and women in Māori communities were held in esteem for their experience and wisdom. 

William Hodges. Sketch of a Māori woman carrying a child, 1773.
Children were treated with indulgence, Joseph Banks observed.
For forty or fifty years after the first contact with Europeans, Māori at Ōtūmoetai continued to flourish. The lack of accessible timber at Tauranga  – the result of previous land clearance by Māori for pā and for crop cultivation – meant that the area held little interest for early Europeans looking for opportunities to exploit New Zealand's hardwood forests  – and shore whaling efforts and sealing were centred elsewhere in the country. The large Māori population at the Bay of Plenty eventually attracted missionaries and traders, but this occurred later than in some other coastal areas of New Zealand. Flax was a resource where the Bay of Plenty had an advantage, and this eventually featured in later Māori and European industry.
Ōtūmoetai Pā had the distinction of never being conquered by enemies, but the eventual military defeat of Tauranga Māori in the New Zealand Wars of the mid-19th century led to the confiscation of their land by the Crown. The people at Ōtūmoetai were forced to leave their ancestral home and the land was allocated to soldier settlers.

Tori Tupaea, the last great Ngaio Te Rangi chief of Ōtūmoetai Pā.
Image Mike Dottridge.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Food in fiction, from fantasy stew to johnny cakes, by Gillian Polack

This last fortnight I’ve been indulging in comfort reading and comfort cooking. I need a couple of hours safety in my day in order to cope with our current interesting times. My reading time has been spent about equally in fantasy worlds and in the world of Georgette Heyer. All of this convinces me that it’s time to talk about food again.

Medlars, picture by Gillian Polack

One of the ways in which I judge the success of the invention in a novel (any novel) is how well the writer handles food. Georgette Heyer is comfort reading partly because she understands that food and the social habits that surround food are essential to her stories. She skips over many things, but seldom food. 

She doesn’t describe it rapturously or gluttonously: she uses it as an essential part of the lives of the characters. Her female characters can go whole days without ever needing to use a toilet, but when Elinor Rochdale rocks up to a strange house in The Reluctant Widow and no-one is prepared for her coming, there are only cold meats and maybe bread and butter on offer. In a well-run household there would be more choices, but the house Elinor discovers is not well run in any way. People must eat, even in poorly-run households, but people may not eat safely or may not have much in the way of choices but starvation is just that and only applies to those living in appalling circumstances. Heyer’s Regency is imaginary and so a lot of the ugly side of society is missing: no-one starves, although people may skip meals or have sadly restricted choices. Food is at the service of story.
Food in a good novel is always at the service of the novel. Even if the author doesn’t mean it to say something, it is part of the story. When an author doesn’t consider food properly and just shoves it in willy-nilly, it’s the reader who pays.

Dried barberries, picture by Trudi Canavan

Until Diana Wynne Jones mocked the ever-present stew in adventure fantasy travel in her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland travellers eating stew appeared far too often in a certain kind of fantasy novel. It was important to feed people felling tyrants or achieving noble quests, and ‘stew’ was a simple concept that worked for those who had never made a decent stew from scratch. By ‘from scratch’ I mean ‘first trap your hare and wild-harvest your carrots’. Decent stew is not a recipe suitable for exhausted people who need nourishment instantly and who are on the run or on a quest.

The writers who used stew in this way had a particular need in their writing. It wasn’t just to feed travellers. Others have used random nuts discovered (in or out of season) or stale bread to serve the same function in the story. They might be depicting a sense of camaraderie around a campfire, a feeling of solidarity or a moment of hope. A hot meal in the midst of panic gives that moment of comfort and equates in reading terms to my choice of novels right now.

Food isn’t just for keeping people alive. Not in fiction and not anywhere. It tells us what level of luxury we live in, what friends we have, how far we’re social beings and far solitary, how much we as individuals luxuriate in or ignore our senses. So if stew can’t be used in quite the way it has been in fantasy novels, what can?

Dried white mulberries, picture by Trudi Canavan

There are many choices, and they all relate to the function the food serves at that precise moment and also to the culture drawn on for the novel. When I was a child, damper was our stew-equivalent for a moment of camaraderie around a fire. Or, if we had a pan, johnny cakes. Johnny cakes are ‘journey cakes’, I suspect (though have never actually demonstrated). 

I and my friends took our sense of mood form the folklore and folksongs we were taught. This is how that bonding can be developed, even if there’s no time or capacity to cook a stew. The song that pushed me to think about journey food was called “Four little Johnny cakes” and a version of it can be found here. It’s all about comfort. All about a pause in travel for refreshment, physical and emotional. The food can be cooked quite quickly, on a single pan, or has been pre-cooked. It has associations with wandering the roads and carrying a swag: the food of swaggies or stockmen.

I’m using Australian terms quite intentionally here, for another thing that writers do when they haven’t thought through things properly is to use the language of their youth or of the fiction they write. How many US readers however, know what a squatter is or care about swaggies? The rules were different. The history is different. The words we write with are not culturally neutral. 

Picture by Gillian Polack

It’s easier to remember that these terms are not culturally neutral if I use less-familiar ones. Saying “johnny cake” in my fiction would have to be backed by some suggestion as to what a johnny cake is, for my readers might not have grown up with (probably didn’t grow up with) that song. I could use the song, or I could joke about the griddle cake Alfred burned (if it was historical fiction) or I could describe the delectable aroma, or... there are many techniques open to writers. The trick is to remember to use them. A good historical fiction novel will use a dozen in a chapter, for they are what bring the detail to life for the reader when one is talking about a distant time.

Flour and water and a bit of salt and a bit of raising agent and maybe a few currants and you have a johnny cake. It takes a very few minutes over a hot pan. If you don’t have a hot pan then you find a stick and make damper. A somewhat wetter dough, wound around the stick and then cooked over a hot fire. These are the travel foods of my childhood. We drizzled honey over our lightly burned damper and made a wonderfully sticky mess. Damper can be savoury and it can be cooked in a dying fire or a dutch oven. 

Flour and water are the traditional cooking ingredients of many travellers, because flour could be carried in a small flour bag and water is a survival necessity. Much more real than stew, in that way.
Alas, for flour and water, the writer has to work that much harder to get the sense of camaraderie around a campfire, or eating a hot meal together I a time of difficulty. Not all foodstuffs serve the same narrative goals with the same ease.

Stew is not impossible while travelling. Soup is even more possible. But they need planning, time and cooking equipment. This is where it’s really handy to look at what travellers actually ate at various times in various places in history. How far from village to village, farm to farm was it? Was it customary for stray travellers to be fed if they arrived when a meal was being served or (for whatever reason) were travellers left unwelcomed? Did voyagers steal chickens from farmers or buy them or forgo fresh meat? Did they walk into a shop and buy equipment and did that equipment include special bags to carry flour and salt and ground coffee and travel soup? Did they travel with a cart, a mule, a horse, a boat? The reader doesn’t have to know all this – if a writer develops the right model for their tale, it will make the story a lot more evocative and mean that food can be used in all the various ways: it’s not just a matter of making sure that characters don’t starve.

Research doesn’t have to be theoretical. Right now, I know a bit more about portable soup than I ought. This is because I’ve been making it. A lot. I know that chicken doesn’t work so well (the bones are too brittle) but that duck is splendid and beef bones with a little meat on are best of all. Of all the beef I tried, Belted Galloway farmed in an old-fashioned way made the best portable soup. I know the exact mount to cook it down to in order to make ‘soup glue’ which has so little moisture that it can be packed in paper and taken on board ship. One smallish cube of my portable soup makes 2-3 mugs of real soup. And I can make quite tasty soup this way. In fact, I have duck soup in my freezer right now and am using it instead of stock cubes in my stews. It makes the best stews ever. My version, however, takes three to five days to make, over low heat. There’s no way of speeding it up and still having a safe and tasty end-product. I’ve tried. It’s wonderful travel food, but it takes planning or resources.

I cook things like this on writing days. This is the wonder of the modern kitchen. I have to keep an eye on my big saucepan, but I don’t have to tend a fire. Before iron stoves were invented quite recently, it wasn’t so easy to make.


This explains the bread and the mutton and the johnny cakes and the fish. It also makes a kind of travel stew possible if you have a pan and a fire and some meat and some vegies. If travellers carry enough baggage and have a good cook in the company, it’s possible to have the comfort food.
It takes a lot of set-up, however. A slice off a piece of mutton bought from a farmer and a piece of bread or damper to eat it with, or a johnny cake (or four) – these are more likely for that Western European based fantasy world than a travel stew. Georgette Heyer, of course, simply finds an inn for her travellers and, if they arrive at an odd hour, someone has to argue with the innkeeper until food is produced. Food is at the service of story in a good novel, always.