history


A Pseudo-Medievalist’s Guide – to Fire.

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Clearly there are many advantages to reading bad books. One of these is the inspiration to write blog posts in an effort to make sure it never happens again.

There are several aspects of medieval life which are easily researchable, but which sometimes writers think they can make up on the fly. I can hardly blame a writer, who has grown up with movies and TV series in which the pseudo-medieval people sit round a blazing fire of leaping yellow flames, which comes on and goes off as if at the flick of a switch, for thinking that that’s how it really is.

 But you know what, kids, it really isn’t, and writing shows up your ignorance more than any brief glimpse of setting in a movie ever could. Worse, more than enough of your readers will have dealt with camp fires, will have open fires at home, will be blacksmiths, reenactors and twisted firestarters to know you got it wrong and to laugh at you for it.

Here, then, is a cheat’s guide to the common camp and hearth fire.

First of all, to address the scene in the book I just read, if you stumble into a clearing where someone has had a fire which has been left to burn itself out and is now cold, and you want to light one yourself, do not try to set fire to the ‘powdery stuff’ which is left. That stuff is called ‘ash’. Ash is the waste product of fire, and while good for tanning leather and making soap it is not flammable.

So, how do you relight someone’s fire (sounds like a romance plot)?

First of all, you rake the cold ashes out of the place where they made the fire. Ash forms a fluffy, inflammable barrier which prevents air getting to your fuel – so it actually chokes the fire. You want a nice clean start on which to build, because making a fire is hard, and unless you give it the best chance you can, you will fail to get it started at all.

 First of all, consider your terrain. Are you in a very dry place? What’s the soil like? If you start a fire on top of an unprotected soil largely made of dry peat, you may end up setting fire to the ground under you. This is a bad idea.

Check, therefore, to see if the previous camper lined the firepit with stone or clay, or whether the ground is wet enough to reduce the danger of roasting yourself and the county you sit in. If not, find stones or clay yourself and make a floor of that to start the fire on.

 Next, sort through the raked out mess of the previous fire. There are some parts of a burnt out fire which will be helpful – any largish chunks of wood which are partially but not wholly burned are likely to be slightly more inclined to catch alight than completely unburned wood would be. These don’t go on the hearth (technical term for the floor you’ve made for your fire) yet, though.

 Now you want to give the infant fire some baby food to help it grow up strong before it can move on to the solid food of big logs. You cannot just drop a spark on a log and expect fire to result, unless you’re in ‘hello forest fire’ conditions, in which case do not light a fire at all!

 Ideally, your sensible pseudo-medieval traveller is carrying a carefully protected bag of dry hay, small dry twigs, and a half a dozen larger dry split sticks. (This is a job for the evening before – drying out enough wood to start the fire next day.)

 Arrange the small twigs in a lattice arrangement (any shape you can manage which leaves plenty of space for air to get through, and a hollow in the middle into which you will insert the fire. Arrange the larger twigs on top of that – still carefully preserving the air-flow. Support the larger dry sticks and partly burned pieces on top of that.

 Make sure there is a good pile of further wood already gathered and preferably cut up into hearth-sized lengths waiting to go on when the time is right.

 OK, so that’s the easy bit done. Now, the prepared pseudo-medieval traveller takes out her tinderbox. The tinderbox contains a small lump of flint and a steel strikealight. It also contains a piece of pre-prepared tinder. This can be a kind of dried fungus, or the fluffy seed of bullrushes, or several small pieces of linen that have been cooked in an airtight box until they’re black.

 I’ve never used fungus or bullrushes, but this is how it goes with linen. When absolutely everything is ready, you hold one piece of linen and the flint in the same hand. Strike the steel against the flint until a spark falls on the linen. The spark will hopefully catch and create a little glowing red spot of slow burning on the linen. When this happens, you put the flint down, keep the spot glowing by blowing gently on it, pick up the straw. Place the glowing linen into the centre of the straw and blow hard into the centre of the ball of straw and linen.

 Hopefully the straw will catch alight. Encourage it by further breathing on it. Not too soon, but not so late that you burn your hands off, push the burning ball of straw into the hollow you created for it in the lattice of what will become your fire. Get your face as close to the fire as you can and breathe air into the flames – gently and steadily.

 Hopefully, the twigs will begin to burn before the straw burns out. Hopefully the larger twigs and pieces of branch will begin to burn before the smaller twigs burn out. If so, the careful lattice will slowly settle into itself and begin to create glowing embers.

 You cannot walk away from the fire at this stage. It needs another hour or so of feeding it larger logs while being careful not to crush or smother the air out of it before it’s self-sustaining enough to be left for a short period. But even then, you will need to check on it every quarter of an hour or so to make sure it isn’t running out of fuel and threatening to go out, or alternatively to make sure it hasn’t ventured out of the side of the hearth and decided to explore your whole campsite.

 Fire needs to be cosseted and nurtured and tenderly nursed, and watched relentlessly to be sure it isn’t going to make a break for it. Fire is not an electric light or a space heater, controllable at the flick of a switch, and it’s a tricky, sneaky creature on whom you have to keep a careful eye.

 But, you may say, my pseudo-medieval traveller was robbed of all his equipment and is stumbling through the forest naked. He starts a fire and…

 How’s he going to do that then? I say. Naked, eh? So he’s got no flint or steel to create a spark? And he’s got no knife to create a fire-drill? Um… Is there flint or rock around he could knap into some kind of cutting tool? More to the point, is he the kind of character with the survivalist knowledge necessary? Does he know which kinds of trees to make his fire-drill out of? Could he recognise the right kind of fungus for tinder? Is it the right season for the bullrushes to be in seed?

 And I really hope it’s not raining, because even if he has the ability to make the spark, if the fuel it ends up on is wet, it will put the spark out.

 Your average pseudo-medieval peasant is likely to know how to start a fire at home, using dry everything under optimal conditions, just as you are likely to know how to start a fire using matches and a couple of firelighters. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any better than you at lighting a fire in the wild without matches/tinderbox and kindling.

 Your naked forest-wanderer may still be saved if he stumbles over the remains of someone else’s fire. But – here is the key bit – he must do so before it has completely burnt out. If he gets to the fireplace and the ashes are still warm, then there is a chance that there are still small embers alight in the ash-bed. Then, if he can find dry tinder (straw, dry pine bark, paper etc), small dry sticks and larger dry sticks, he might be able to find an ember in the ash which will take the place of that elusive spark (another good romance title).

 It still has to be not raining, though.

~

Alex is only intermittently present in the real world.She has lead a Saxon shield wall into battle, toiled as a Georgian kitchen maid, and recently taken up an 800 year old form of English folk dance, but she still hasn’t learned to operate a mobile phone. You can find more of her blogging and all of her books at her site: http://alexbeecroft.com

“Oh!” Don put the Sunday paper on the coffee table and got up. As soon as Rick had entered the living room he saw something was wrong. “What’s the matter? Bad news.”

Rick put his mobile beside the paper with a peevish little click. “The boss. I’m going on a training course.”

“What?” Don shook his head. “But why?”

“Some new computer programme we all have to use. As if that’s going to make an already shitty job any better.”

Once they had decided to move in together, they had managed to find the perfect flat to rent, nice and close to the school where Don was head of Physics. But Rick had had to take what he could get in the way of employment – data processing for some faceless international corporation. Sure there was a gym in the basement of the building were he worked, but no discernable soul amongst the middle-management.

“Apparently I have to have the bit of paper before I can go up to the next grade where I might do something that requires a brain,” Rick elaborated with a wave of his hand. “So it’s the course for me. Thursday.”

“That’s short notice,” Don scowled. “But at least it’s just one day. What?” Rick was shaking his head.

“Thursday first thing through to lunchtime Saturday.” He shrugged. “I’ve got no choice but at least it’s all expenses paid and the hotel should be a good one.”

“London?” Don asked.

“No, down on the south coast.” Rick grinned. “You could come with me. I’ve opted for a double bed with no sharing.” He patted his belly. “Claimed I need my space, see.  Some of the other guys are taking spouses so there’s no reason why you can’t come.”

“And what would I do while you’re doing whatever? I’d sooner stay here. Make ready to give you a really warm welcome when you get home.” Don raised his eyebrows suggestively.

“You could keep me warm down there,” Rick protested. “Come on. It’s a nice place.”

“Where?”

“Bognor Regis.”

“Bognor? No, I’m not going.” Don folded his arms with a scowl. “God awful  place that’s stuck in the 50s. Walk down the street holding hands and corseted matrons have the vapours and call for the Peelers.”

“Exaggerating much,” Rick said. “Oh please yourself. This crap job hasn’t got many perks so excuse me if I make the most of this one.”

Don went to make supper, feeling guilty but not yet prepared to apologise, while Rick sorted the laundry with more force than necessary. Neither job was improved by sulking.

By the next morning they were at ease with each other and when Rick asked again Don had an answer that couldn’t possibly cause offence.

“You know we’ve been meaning to give the hall a coat of paint. I can do that Friday night after I get in. You wanted that soft green, didn’t you?”

“Okay.” Rick smiled, kissed Don good bye and went to catch his bus.

Rick asked again on Monday evening just after they had gone to bed. “Are you sure you won’t come?”

“I think I’m bound to if you keep doing that,” Don replied with a gasp.

“No,” Rick snickered. “I meant Bognor?” But he didn’t stop and he didn’t get a sensible answer either.

Don assumed that the matter had been dropped. Rick made the occasional comment about ways and means. He was getting a lift with a colleague. Ellie would pick him up from the house at 6.30 on Thursday morning which should give them plenty of time to be there by ten. The hotel was a modern one – Rick had checked it out online – very plush.

Don provided satisfactory responses but was still adamant. “I’ve just got too much on,” he said. “Between the office and home – no, I can’t spare the time. You get your sleep.” He raised his eyebrows. “You’ll need all your energy when you get back.”

“I thought I might go out on the town,” Rick said.

“In Bognor?” Don snorted. He too had looked it up online. “Good luck mate. I can recommend the music hall. Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd, Nosmo King and Hubert are still playing down there.”

“Exaggerating,” Rick sang out again but this time he was laughing.

Thursday morning,  Don got up early to see him off on the doorstep. “Take care,” he said and drew him close for a farewell kiss.

Rick sighed. “I’ll miss you,” he said. “Last chance? You could come down by train?”

“You don’t give up do you,” Don said and gave Rick a squeeze. “Off with you. I can hear a car.”

Ellie came to the door – a bright twenty something in impossible heels that didn’t seem to slow her down at all.”

“Ready?” she asked. “Got your glad rags?”

“Hardly,” Rick said. “I plan to do a lot of reading.” He waved his Kindle.

Ellie snorted. “Silly man.” She rolled her eyes and grinned at Don. “Didn’t they tell you that the venue had to cancel? They rang last night. Dry rot or salmonella or something. We’re not going to Bognor. We’re going to Brighton instead.”

“Brighton!” Rick and Don’s voices meshed perfectly in yelps of delight and disbelief.

Rick turned to Don. “Changed your mind?” he asked.

“You betcha, big boy,” Don replied with a grin.

Bugger Bognor. Brighton was more like it!

~

Elin is fairly new to official authordom; Alike As Two Bees, her historical gay romance, was only published in March. Links to her work can be found here.

Tripped up by words. 

In my one Regency story I have a charcter talking about how hard the snow is falling; he calls it a blizzard. Nice, traditional English word, I thought. Imagine how cross I was to recently discover that not only is “blizzard” a late nineteenth century word as applied to weather, it’s American in origin. What right had it to trip me up like that? 

Trouble is, it’s too easy to just assume things about language. Yes, I look up brands to see if they’re contemporary for my heroes (that’s why Orlando can’t snaffle jelly babies) and I check out phrases, too (which is why Helena couldn’t say “Goodnight Vienna”) but some words seem so obviously “old” that I don’t bother. Perhaps I should, but when to stop? 

I guess for most of us there’s an internal sort of check which means we’re fine if we’re writing post 1700. If the word/phrase is in Shakespeare or the King James Bible, then we’re safe.  So I can use punk, “eye for an eye”, ‘’beggars description” and the like to my heart’s content. Plumber, spectacles,  barricade, shuttle; they’re all nice safe words.  Some are surprises, too – skyscraper goes back to the Age of Sail, and was then used as a nickname for things like tall hats. Dunce, admiral, stationer – all these words can be traced back a surprisingly long way.

Clearly there are some obvious words which a writer could never use in a story set earlier than the twentieth century – bikini, Quisling, green in the sense of concerned for the environment, gay in the sense of sexuality., tank in any sense other than a storage receptacle. But there are some phrases which could catch you out. “The cat’s whiskers” comes from the days of radio, so couldn’t be used to describe something really good in Regency days. Nor could your Victorian spy be brainwashed. He could, however, have gone to see a floodlit rugby match, although they weren’t necessarily called floodlights then. 

Aren’t words confusing, or is it just me getting old?

I’m hugely indebted to Lee Benoit for mailing me with some pictures she noticed in an archive for the athletic departments at her old university.

These lovely – and very modern looking lads – appear to be the 1870 baseball team. The guy sitting down, second from right, looks just like Steve Borthwick.

And this lad from 1880 looks like he could just have stepped out of my Sky Sports screen!

I picked up the book British Greats at a charity stall; it’s a real gem. As I flicked through, I came across this picture – the bloke second from the left at the back really caught my eye. “That’s Mallory! I had no idea he was so striking!”

The story of Mallory and Irvine’s bid to climb Everest is the stuff of which British history is made, especially the attitude that using oxygen to aid climbing was somehow unsporting! Did they scale the mountain three decades before Hilary and Tenzing? How did they die? The haunting account of them being last seen disappearing into cloud as they attempted the summit has me welling up even as I type.

Andrew (Sandy) Irvine, even if he’s traditionally more handsome, doesn’t cut it for me.

Mallory’s my boy.

Lytton strachey thought he was pretty hot, too.

My hand trembles, my heart palpitates, my whole being swoons away at the words — oh heavens! I found of course that he’s been absurdly maligned — he’s six foot high, with the body of an athlete Praxiteles, and a face — oh incredible — the mystery of Botticelli, the refinement and delicacy of a Chinese print, the youth and piquancy of an imaginable English boy. I rave, but when you see him, as you must, you will admit all — all!

Maybe the picture featured here is the reason. Mallory seems to have had a hankering for being in the nude – how cold must he have been doing this?

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years reading books and poetry by and about the WWI poets. I’ll start by saying that I’m not going to be extolling either the beauty or the virtue or Rupert Brooke or Siegfried Sassoon. Despite the way that women raved about their looks, I find neither particularly attractive physically and the more I read about them the more I dislike their personalities.

Instead, let me squee about these lads:

Ivor Gurney is one of the almost forgotten poets of WWI, in comparison to Brooke, Sassoon, Graves and Owen. He seems to have had some sort of mental disorder, not just the almost inevitable shell-shock, and died tragically young,  leaving behind a legacy of such poems as “To His Love“.

is body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn river
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

And then there’s my favourite, Wilfred Owen

I have on my computer cart a WWI Manchester’s cap badge, ourchased solely because Owen was with one of the Manchester regiments (the seller gave me a discount because I mentioned that). Complex, charming, a touch immature, shy, talented, Owen comes across wonderfully well – better, indeed, with everything I read about him. There’s something so gentle and wistful in that gaze, something to make me go weak at the knees.

He’s retained his place in the heart – and the English curriculum – of the nation, although I do wonder what some teachers would think if they knew he’d written about rent-boys as well as life in the trenches. I’d recommend that anyone who wants to understand WWI, and early twentieth century Engalnd, reads his work. I’ll go back to sighing…

At the Macaronis authors’ group we were discussing handsome men (par for the course) and got onto hotties from days gone by. Some of us will be sharing our favourite historical hotties over the weeks ahead.

I’m starting with some sporting heroes (well, there’s a surprise!) I like men’s tennis, so I was astonished to discover that there were two British players who dominated Edwardian tennis, worldwide, and I’d never heard of them!

Laurie and Reggie Doherty between them won every Wimbledon singles tournament from 1897 to 1906, bar 1901. They had wins at the US championships, won doubles titles in the US and UK and garnered Olympic gold, including in London 1908. And they were gorgeous.

Then there’s Ronnie Poulton-Palmer. He scored four tries in an international against France (shades of Chris Ashton and Italy!) and was killed in the trenches, his last words apparently being, “I shall never play at Twickenham again”.

His death inspired a poem, by Alfred Ollivant, in The Spectator:.
‘Ronald is dead: and we shall watch no more
His swerving swallow-flight adown the field
Amid eluded enemies, who yield
Room for his easy passage, to the roar
Of multitudes enraptured, who acclaim
Their country’s captain slipping towards his goal.
Instant of foot, deliberate of soul –
All’s well with England, Poulton’s on his game.’

I’m off to have a lie down and a weep.

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