This is a cross-posting from my research blog, Gemæcca, (which should actually be Gemæcce but I didn’t understand the gender difference when I first built the blog, sigh).
Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum is holding an exhibition, “Anglo-Saxon Art in the Round.” For all of us who can’t actually get there, here’s an audiovisual introduction to the show.
I think it would be marvellous to hold something like this in one’s hand.
One of my most treasured possessions is a string of 73 Roman carnelians (first century AD). I wear them all the time, wrapped around my wrist. Most people don’t notice them, but I smile to myself because I know I’m wearing jewellery two thousand years old. I positively lust for something gold from times past. A gold thrymsa would delight me beyond measure. Actually, a little sceatta would thrill me, just something the people I’m writing about might have touched.
Coins are on my mind because I’ve been thinking about money, and trade. Here are my current assumptions: that the economy of north of England, specifically Northumbria, would be still based largely on barter, or payment in kind, with hack silver being a rough and ready exchange where necessary. Coins were much more common in the south, particularly in Kent, with its Frankish trade, and East Anglia, with its brand new king’s wic at Gipswic. So I’ve imagined Hild let loose at Gipswic with two small chest of hack silver, and then tried to work out what she could buy. And how.
First of all, she’d change some of her hacksilver for coin: gold and silver, which for convenience I’m calling shillings and pennies. I’m imagining the gold shilling is a biggish coin weighing about 4 grams and the silver penny is tiny and about 1g. I’m imagining gold was around eight times more valuable than silver, so one shilling = 32 pennies. I imagine you can buy a prime male slave (young, healthy, strong, well-mannered, and skilled) for two shillings, and for a penny a suckling pig or two dozen big loaves of bread. (A lot of work, too tedious to go into here, has gone into those assumptions so if anyone has better figures please–please!–share. I don’t want to look like an idiot when this book is published.)
Then I had a lot of fun imagining the goods at Gipswic: the slaves, the imported glass goblets, the honey cakes, the Rhenish wine, the tiny perfume bottles, wheel-thrown pottery, cunning knives, ivory combs, gilt-bronze buckles… Then I had to figure out what it would all be wrapped in, and who would carry it, and how. And of course only a paragraph or two will actually make it into the book, but I feel hugely satisfied.
6 thoughts on “anglo-saxon in the round”
I have been thinking about you said all day. It fascinates me that when you write sf, you can make the world what you want. When you write about Hild, you have to do all this research and find out a lot of neat stuff. And yet, when you imagined Lore, Marghe and Aud, you were imagining Hild at the same time.
I’m not sure I understand you, exactly. Are you saying you feel that Lore, Marghe, Aud and Hild are connected? They are, of course, in the sense that they all flow from me, my knowledge of the world and my understanding of same. But I just want to be sure I’m clear on what you mean.
Your carenlians and wish to touch something that belonged to the people you are writing about resonated like a bell witin me. >I have always felt a similar want to just touch something from the long ago and “connect” across time.>>I took my daughters to Tennessee many years ago and visited a plantation. I stood on the entry steps and actually placed my finger in a musketball divet in one of the supporting columns. This was stuff of the civil war and I was connected with it by touch! The same for the stone wall surroundng the property. Slaves put that wall in place and I laid my hand on the stones that those hands touched. >>I also have a musket ball from Kansas. I try to imagine how it came to be in the spot where I found it in the woods. What else might be there, buried or in open sight, casually passed by without recognition.>>I have arrow points gathered from my summer’s spent at my cousin’s ranch when I was a teenager. I can hold them in my hand and know that hands of another place and time MADE them. I try to imagine an encampment, fires, pottery, social exchange, and what that exact day was like when the point was chipped away.>>I could go on much more than you would care to know about my love of fossil hunting.>>Not to beat a dead horse to glue, but I am SO looking forward to your novel! Your passion for what you are writing is so clearly an exciting marker of what is to follow…
linda, yes. I want to put my readers right there, right then, smelling and tasting and feeling how it is to live fourteen hundred years ago. If readers get one tenth of the thrill I’m getting doing this, I’ll be delighted.
I guess that I was trying to say is that you fel it necessary to make Hild’s world authentic. What was it really like. At the same time you have to imagine, because there’s never enough historical information. And yet all four women are strong, subtle complex characters. Oh hell.
All my characters are, to some extent, facets of me. And I try to ground them in a ‘real’ world as far as possible.>>Writing historical fiction is a bit like writing science fiction, but with constraints. (In SF I can go wild and make shit up. In historical fiction I can’t contravene what is known to be known.) I love working out how it all fits together, how societies are formed, what their bases are–and then fiddle about changing one tiny thing and see what happens. It’s like the biggest chemistry set in the world.>>The greatest challenge is knowing when to describe and explain and when to just let it go. (How many readers need to know how many women it takes to milk how ever many cows a royal household needs? But if I don’t mention cows at all, the milieu is subtley wrong. It’s a delicate balance.) And of course I can’t forget the *story*: battles and births and hopes and dreams and politics and change and love and hate and god. It’s like trying to fit a world in a bottle…
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