Faeries, Faeries, quite contrary

flying pixie manDuring research for one of my WIPs I came across this lovely book “Faeries, Elves and Goblins – The Old Stories” by Rosalind Kerven, a National Trust book published under their Folklore banner. It not only has beautiful illustrations by Arthur Rackham and other acclaimed artists but also contains a very interesting collection of stories and a wealth of information about the Little People living under hills, in meadows and ancient groves.

I had never realised how wicked some faeries, goblins and elves could be – just read King Herla’s story or the plight of poor farm boy Tom Tiver, when he meets goblin Yallery Brown, and you’ll know what I mean!

Not all of these nightly creatures are wicked though and some are rather helpful to humans, provided said men, women and children are deserving of their magical interference. I also didn’t know how many different kinds of faeries existed in the folklore catalogue of mythical creatures populating the British Isles – there’s a veritable legion of them.

fairy on islandThanks to J K Rowling we all know about Cornish Pixies, and if you aren’t friends with Hermione Granger it’s probably not a good idea to invite a Cornish Pixie into your house for tea. But did you know there were pixie populations in Devon and Somerset, too? Would a Devon Pixie have a different accent than a Cornish one? Would a Somerset Pixie offer you a pint of scrumpy if you asked nicely?

Do you know what a Greenie or Grey Neighbour is or have you ever come across Henkies, Hobs or Hogmen before?

Hands up, who’s heard of Phynnodderees, Portunes or Trows? Ever come across the Siofra, Spriggans or Grogachs after a particularly boozy night out?

I’m especially intrigued by the stories that mention faerie folk living under hills and mountains, for it ties in with my research on Arthurian legends – not the medieval 12th and 13th century romantic versions we usually get to see on telly or on the silver screen, but the “real” 6th century AD legendary King Arthur and Merlin characters mentioned in various historical documents (which may be fictional accounts and not about real people at all but hey, us folklore fanatics take what we can get).

To me, faeries belong to the Dark Ages, the time when the Romans had left the British Isles and Britons had to fend for themselves – and according to legends, Arthur and Merlin were probably the last remaining defenders of the Celtic way of life, before the invading Saxons and their nasty new-fangled religion destroyed the magic that had once permeated every aspect of Brythonic life. King Herla’s story in particular stands out – it’s almost as if the storyteller is referring to the Romans, making them faerie folk who promised a land of golden opportunity, patronage, friend-and kinship and then simply vanishing into thin air.

excalibur out of waterSo if you want to learn more about these mischievous creatures of the night, these laughing, chanting, giggling dancers and musicians with their gem encrusted halls, their faerie gold and silver bells, their colourful clothes and strange sense of humour, have a peek at Rosalind Kerven’s book. It’s perfect night time reading material.

 

(source for animations: heathersanimations.com)

Being a Witch is never easy

Examination of a Witch by T. H. Matteson, insp...

Examination of a Witch by T. H. Matteson, inspired by the Salem witch trials (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my second novel, Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts, I’m using several real historical events as the starting point for my plot. One is the recent discovery of a “witch’s cottage” near Pendle in Lancashire, where in 1612 the infamous Pendle Witch Trials took place. Two men and eight women were hanged as witches after extensive trials.

 

The other main historical event I’m using as background for my latest vampire lore is the even more infamous series of witch trials that took place in the city of Würzburg in Germany between 1626 and 1631.

 

The Würzburg witch trials are regarded as one of the largest peace-time mass trials, which were followed by mass executions on an unprecedented scale.

 

Responsible for the persecution of innocent men, women and lots of children was Bishop Philip Adolf, on whose orders an estimated six to nine hundred people were burnt alive at the stake or hanged.

 

heks_in_maan witch flying against moonMy premise is that with such unjust killings there must be a lot of angry spirits about seeking revenge. As my previous posts have shown, ghosts have all manner of motives for clinging to the place where they lived or died. Revenge is always a good subject for a mystery or, in this case, a vampire story suitable for children aged 8 to 12 that discusses the subject of “evil” – what is evil, how do we stand up to it and who gets away with doing bad stuff?

 

This year marks the anniversary of two famous witch trials in the United Kingdom, by the way. Not just the Pendle trials but also the last conviction for sorcery, which took place in Hertfordshire in March 1712, is being commemorated this year. Fortunately, this trial had a kind of happy ending, when Queen Anne pardoned the accused sorceress Jane Wensham and thus saved her from the hangman’s noose.

 

"The witch no. 1" lithograph

“The witch no. 1” lithograph (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pretty much anyone could be accused of sorcery – if you were overhead talking to your cat or pet pig you could be accused of being in league with the devil – and the methods used for getting confessions out of alleged warlocks and witches were utterly horrendous…thanks to the oh so Christian torturers in charge of interrogations.

 

Over on http://www.mariathermann.wordpress.com I’m discussing my home town Lübeck’s walled fortifications, in particular the famous Holsten Gate, which was once part of the city’s fortifications. Until 2002, the Holsten Gate housed a gruesome torture chamber and “dungeon” exhibition in the museum, which I remember only too well from various school trips and visits with my grandparents.

 

If I recall correctly, it boasted a rack and thumb screws, branding irons and various other torture paraphernalia among its exhibits. It seems utterly impossible anyone should be so devoid of compassion and feeling that they should use such instruments on anyone, let alone small children, but this is what happened quite frequently under the Christian motto of “love thy neighbour”.

 

Persecution of witches

Persecution of witches (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Willow the Vampire, champion for defenceless children and animals which get a rough deal at the hands of those who should care for them and protect them from harm, is having rather a busy time of it, what with saving the world from Ragnarög, saving best friend Darren AND dealing with an army of vengeful ghosts.

 

Burning at the stake. An illustration from an ...

Burning at the stake. An illustration from an mid 19th century book. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Vampires, as a rule, like to mind their own business, so getting involved with human and supernatural beings that have their own agenda, is always going to contradict a bloodsucker’s inner beliefs. Vengeance, on the other hand, is a subject vampires can relate to whole-heartedly. Will our Willow be tempted to go over to the dark side?

 

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

One thing’s for sure, Willow the Vampire will remain a champion for children and this writer won’t ever make light of their plight at the hands of adults. Unlike perhaps the writer who brought us Harry Potter. Am I the only one who finds the announcement that J K Rowling’s adult novel The Casual Vacancy will become a BBC drama incredibly ill-timed and utterly distasteful?

 

As if the BBC wasn’t in enough trouble over the Savill enquiry into paedophilia and rape allegations, namely sex crimes against children and young adults that allegedly happened under the very noses of former BBC bosses over a period of some 40 years! Now our licence fee is being used for this, a book that has not received much critical acclaim and is only being shifted thanks to the J K Rowling name?

 

One day I may write a Willow the Vampire novel that will deal with the ultimate evil creature of the night, the Jimmy Savills and Gary Glitters of this world. Naturally, I shan’t use the subject of children or young adults being threatened by rape as a subject for satire and parody, which most of J K Rowling’s readers found distinctly unfunny, when I last looked on Amazon’s reviews.

Willow in black dressNo, I ‘m far more likely to use the subject of BBC bosses in terror and utter distress, as vampire Willow and her friends barbeque them over a moderate flame, while basting them with home-made marinade provided by grateful licence fee payers.

 

More boar-ing Facts from the Wild Wood

Fig. 16 - Wild boar.

I’ve already touched on how wild boars were hunted to extinction in Britain during the Middle Ages. Before heading for the subject of boar worships, perhaps we should look a little closer at why boars are regarded as such worship-worthy beasties.

Famous for their resilience, strength and courage, wild charging boars make formidable opponents. Hunters, who merely graze wild boars with their bullets, lance or spear, might find they’re being chased up a tree, mauled, trampled, squashed and even killed. The general rule is to kill the boar or be killed by it. The wild pig is blessed with very thick fur and hide, dense bones and enormous tusks (worn by males only to impress the girls), which makes it so resilient.

The Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) is the wild ancesto...

Naturally, boars were mainly hunted for their delicious meat, but they were also pursued with such relentless vigour because pigs, wild, domesticated or just ill-behaved, can cause tremendous damage to crops, kitchen gardens, fields and forests. They take being an omnivore very seriously and “hoover” up everything that comes before their snout, lizards, acorns, snails, mushrooms, carrots in a kitchen garden.

There were various methods to kill wild pigs, among them pick-sticking and hunting at bay with hounds like mastiffs or trapping with nets and deep holes. While pick-sticking had at least something of the single combat, heroic element to it, hunting with dogs, shooting with guns or trapping wild boar is unmanly and a hunting method used only by cowards.

During a pick-sticking hunt the hunter or spearman used a special boar spear to kill the animal, either on horseback or on “foot”, sometimes in groups of hunters but also in a single man-to-boar situation.

Worshipping boar for their strength and bravery reminds me of humanity’s first foray into this misguided belief. Can we truly imbibe our enemies’ physical strength and positive traits of character? I rather doubt it. If true, we’d all be biting Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sarah Michelle Geller or Marilyn Monroe. It’s a fairy-tale made up by cannibals, when they clubbed each other over the head and consumed their uncles, aunts and nephews in the privacy of their own caves. A slice of Uncle Herbert, anyone?

Skeleton of wild boar

Skeleton of wild boar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just as there are still thousands of idiots out there who believe that bits of tiger flesh stewed with a selection of Asian herbs and spices or ground up rhino horn sprinkled over their oysters or snow leopard steaks with chips and mayo will give them greater prowess in the bedroom department, thousands of years ago Celts worshipped the boar and munched their way through thousands of these wonderful animals for rather different reasons.

Even the great King Arthur himself didn’t escape the boar-magic. A story found in the Welsh/Celtic Culhwch and Olwen mentions Arthur chasing after the mythological boar Twrch Tryth and that the boar and chase had something to do with Arthur entering the otherworld or realm of the dead in order to steal a magical object.

Culhwch entering Arthur's Court in the Welsh t...

Culhwch entering Arthur’s Court in the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, 1881 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unlike the aforementioned men with too much money on their hands and too little brain between their ears, the Celts created tiny metal boar statues to wear on their helmets and nearly life-size ones as offerings during special burials of important personages as their tribute to the boar. Romans were less fanatical in their boar hunting efforts, but also prized the animal for its courage and strength.

Although during the 13th and 14th century noblemen mainly hunted boar for sport and food, they also practiced their martial skills on them and eventually paid tribute to their wild opponents by including them in their heraldic emblems. Because wild boars were so ferocious and often killed hounds, horse and hunter, the boar was considered a malicious animal and was even accused of having links with Satan. However, this didn’t stop the rich aristocracy to covet their cunning, strength and intelligence.

My particular favourite is the noble house of Schweinichen, who used pictures of a wild boar in their heraldic emblems and colours (Schweinchen = piglet). Undoubtedly, the wild boars would have preferred to be left in peace to forage in the forest rather than being hunted and then used as a cute namesake.

Heubach wild boar

Wild boars, like all pigs, are highly intelligent animals. Hunted to extinction in large parts of Europe, wild boars are gradually making a comeback, thanks to their astute understanding of human habits and human habitats. In Greater Berlin in Germany, populations of some 10,000 animals have been recorded, around 4,000 of which sneak into suburbs to raid bins or forage for food in gardens or to play in the municipal parks with their piglets.

Knowing they are unlikely to be hunted or even chased by suburban humans, they have become so brazen that the normally nocturnal animals have been sighted during the day – when in May 2003 two wild boars went for a stroll on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, the municipal powers ran out of patience and sent out storm troopers to deal with the trotting menace. Both intrepid piggy-tourists were shot, proving once and for all that only Stasi-swine are allowed to live happily ever after in Berlin.

English: Mosaic of a wild boar on the Northern...

English: Mosaic of a wild boar on the Northern Aisle floor of the Byzantine Church of Petra, Jordan Français : Mosaïque représentant un sanglier sur le bas côté nord de l’église byzantine de Pétra en Jordanie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As per my earlier blog, wild boars have also discovered the delights of Hamburg, where earlier this year several of them invaded private gardens. These links are to German newspaper reports, showing pictures of the “humane” hunt with stun guns that merely sedated the animals. Only two of the Hamburg tourists were caught; the rest of the piggy gang escaped by jumping into the river.

http://www.ndr.de/regional/hamburg/wildschwein183.html

http://www.ndr.de/regional/hamburg/wildschwein197.html

Don’t be a Boar!

Having finally re-discovered my wild boar research in one of my client’s files, I’ve decided to make this a two part blog. The first part deals with the real animal, while part two will explore the mythological beasty.

Growing up in rural Germany, I often came across wild boar, when walking in the woods or when visiting nature reserves. It was always thrilling to meet this shy, but potentially lethal creature. Most of them take to their heels and run off, but some stand their ground and challenge the astonished hiker, particularly when their chocolate and cream striped and utterly adorable piglets are accompanying them on their foraging trips.

Snowi, a young wild boar (Sus scrofa) in the W...

The wild boar (Sus scrofa), or wild pig, is a species belonging to the pig genus Sus, which forms part of the family Suidae. Wild boars are the ancestors of our domestic pigs and typically live in groups of 20 to 50 animals. Northern and Central Europe was once their main stomping ground, but their geographical spread also includes the North African Atlas Mountains, large parts of Asia and the Mediterranean, too. Their average weight is around 44 to 50 kilos, but some male boars can reach enormous sizes: 320 kg boars were allegedly strutting around in Russia, but 100 kilo specimen are not uncommon in Italy either. Fancy coming across that on a walk!

While in Germany the wild boar is still common and indeed, is now invading cities to forage for food (e.g. March 2012, Hamburg, where a wild boar fell into a river, when a group of wild pigs where chased from people’s gardens), the relentless hunting caused the wild boar to disappear completely from British forests and fields during the Middle Ages. Today, wild boar – its own worst enemy, thanks to its delicious meat – is being commercially farmed in the UK, but a few small colonies exist in the wild, mainly where wild boar managed to escape from farms and wildlife parks. One small herd established itself in Dorset; the other exists in East Sussex/Kent.

English: A baby Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) in a wi...

Throughout the centuries wild boar was prized not just for its wonderful meat but also for its bristles, which were used for brushes and for its ivory tusks, which can be cut into all manner of things and be decorated with carvings. Famous for its bravery, the wild boar is a formidable opponent. Hunting for boar and stag became particularly popular among the European aristocracy in the 14th century, when knights and their kings owned vast estates. They established their own game parks to allow them total control over their hunting grounds and prey. The aristocracy put very strict laws into place to protect their animals throughout the seasons, ensuring there’d always be enough meat on their princely banqueting tables. Hunting was a pastime for the elite, leaving foxhunting to peasants.

English: Gaston III of Foix-Béarn (Gaston Phoe...

English: Gaston III of Foix-Béarn (Gaston Phoebus) as depicted in Livre de chasse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The nobleman Gaston Phoebus published a whole series of hunting scenes in Burgundy, which show how the rich elite hunted with lots of underlings doing the chasing and flushing out of prey as well as packs of hounds, nets and snares to kill wild animals.

To give Gaston his proper titles, he was Gaston III/X of Foix-Béarn, also known as Gaston Fébus or Gaston Phoebus (April 30, 1331–1391). For his sins he was the 11th count of Foix as well as viscount of Béarn (1343–1391). Officially, he was known as Gaston III of Foix and Gaston X of Béarn.

His book Livre de chasse (Book of the Hunt) was written between 1387 and 1388 and dedicated to Philip the Bold, who was the Duke of Burgundy at the time. As one of the greatest huntsmen of his day, Gaston III/X knew what he was talking about. He describes the various stages of hunting and how to hunt for different animals. As a self-appointed expert on animal behaviour Gaston also offers advice to the less well-off aristocracy, who often bankrupted themselves by keeping game parks and inviting vast numbers of their mates to hunt with them – they all had to be accommodated, fed and watered!

Gaston’s hunting scenes were also reflected in the rich tapestries of the time, which served as wall hangings in castles to keep out the draft and to boast to visitors of the riches the castle owner had at his disposal, not to mention his prowess as a hunter. One of Master Phoebus’ paintings shows a boar hunt, where the rich overlord is sitting safely on a horse, piercing the wild boar with his broad sword, while his underlings are armed with lances and spears, risking their own lives by confronting the boar on foot. Together the collection of paintings appeared in what was to become one of the most famous hunting books of the time.

If this blog was about cooking for humans, I’d now present you with a yummy wild boar recipe, but just like Willow the Vampire’s attitude in these matters, my own allegiance is with the boar, I’m afraid! I do confess to having eaten wild boar stew on a number of occasions when I was young and out for a meal with my parents and well…it was very delicious indeed.

Wild Boar

The next blog will deal with the boar as a mythical creature, both hunted and revered for millennia by Phoenicians, ancient Romans and 6th century Celts, or should I say Brits, like King Arthur and Merlin.

Dear Bloodsuckers, please don’t kill the logic!

Whenever I read a piece of fiction, no matter what genre, I get very irritated with writers who don’t apply logic or don’t bother to do even a minimum of research into the professions, locations and circumstances of their characters and plot.  Even in fantasy fiction, logic still applies or a plot loses credibility within the setting of its own world.

Since much of Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts revolves around events of the past, I want to look at creatures of the night living a normal life through the ages. What were their circumstances, how did they survive, what disguise might they have used to get by?

It’s all very well to create romantic Twilight vampire fiction that tells us vampires are immortal and are now living as teenage heart throbs in some American dream town, but how did their ancestors survive the difficult centuries before? How did the bloodsucking inhabitants of True Blood arrive in the American South and why were vampire slayers like Sunnydale’s Buffy the vampire slayer and her helpmate Faith or Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing created at all?

Continuing with my research into vampire life in early Britain I discovered that before the tenth century nearly all people lived in small hamlets or in single dwellings scattered around the rural landscape. A small hamlet consisted of no more than 5 farmsteads with barns and outhouses for animals, while a full scale village would have had just twelve to sixty families living in an enclosure surrounded by a ditch and fence.

People made their living mainly from the land. Professions like shepherd or keeper of swineherds, farmer, blacksmith, dairymaids, ploughmen, woodsman and fishermen were common, but millers less so, as the erection of vertical wheel mills didn’t start until just before 900 AD. Until then, most families would engage women and children to mill by hand. This means the majority of professions would have been carried out during daytime hours, when vampires were fast asleep.

Kings and the nobles lived in larger dwellings, castles that were really city states. They were mainly concerned with hunting, their favourite pastime, and keeping their tenants and slaves hard at work. Landowners had to manage the meagre woods left by the Romans, who’d robbed Britain of most of its primeval forests and woodland, where people’s natural food resources had lived. After the year 850 more laws were introduced to protect deer and boar as well as existing woodland and forests, making hunting and foraging for wood illegal, except for the king and the aristocracy. This means running around in woods looking for human prey would be a waste of time as far as werewolves and vampires are concerned.

Writers of vampire fiction often neglect to explain how vampires had to survive through the ages. Vampires, without enemies like slayers or vampire hunters, have no natural enemies, so they are eternal as long as they can feed on blood. It therefore would have been essential for vampires to move in the circles of nobility, as lords lived with their servants, slaves and members of the church in far larger settlements than any other mortals – otherwise vampires would have had to live as hermits in the woods and fields, foraging for rodents. Hardly romantic or cool for the modern vampire so keen on presenting a marketable image.

And what about traditional friends and animal allies of vampires and witches? Were they plentiful or scarce and where did they live?

By the 11th century bears had already been hunted to extinction in Britain, while in the 12th century beaver numbers had been reduced to a few small family groups living in Wales and Scotland. Vampires would have still had some wolves as their allies, but these wonderful animals had also been hunted to such an extent, they only survived in remote parts of English forests and a few other deserted places in Britain.

Why then are genre writers telling us vampires and werewolves or bloodsuckers and regular wolves are meeting en mass to either fight or conspire? A meeting between werewolves, regular wolves and vampires would have to take place in some remote location in Scotland’s Highlands or some Rocky Mountain reserve…hardly the typical hangout for blood-hungry teenage vampires with a desire to have fabulous hair. I may be a geek and a nerd, but I value logic even in  supernatural writing!

English: Cover of the book Interview With the ...

The afterlife must have been tough during the Middle Ages, making the prospect of joining the crusades in the guise of a noble knight quite a lucrative undertaking. Warfare and local squabbles among lords and kings must have been the main food source for vampires prior to the emergence of cities and towns. Incidentally, I love Anne Rice’s vampire stories because she likes to show us how her protagonists might live their afterlife throughout the centuries.

Another interesting fact I came across was that before slavery virtually died out in 1100 AD, the price of a male slave was £1, eight times the price of an ox. No doubt wealthy vampires would have been able to keep slaves and therefore have their own food source at hand. In Willow the Vampire’s second adventure the accumulation of wealth among vampires is crucial, hence my interest in vampire history and how they might have reached their present day role in society.

Cover of "Medieval Children"

With most of the population being in bed by 9.00 pm there would have been little point for creatures of the night to go out hunting for human blood. Medieval children would often be told by their no doubt exasperated parents trying to persuade them to go to bed that “the bloodless and boneless (were) behind the door”, that witches, elves, hags, furies, satyrs, urchins, spirits, pans, fauns, silens (wood gods) and bull beggers (bogies)* were lurking in the shadows at night. Unlikely then that small people would have ventured outdoors as prey for hungry bloodsuckers.

Naturally, vampires could have broken into homes, but this leads us back to small hamlets and villages, where all families knew each other. A stranger stood out like a sore thumb and more likely than not would have been either driven out before nightfall or confined somewhere in a barn. The main killer of medieval children was hunger and want, not a bite to the neck. All accidental or unusual deaths were examined – children’s and adults’ corpses would be seen by a coroner and a report into their deaths would be compiled, before being presented to a jury. Vampires leaving an obvious trail of corpses wouldn’t have gotten very far – a fact that is often overlooked in vampire fiction. From the poorest peasant to noblemen and lords, every “accidental” death would be examined and reported, starting with the tiniest babies.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t the bites from vampires that posed a threat to medieval children, it was pigs wandering through open front doors into people’s houses and taking a chunk out of a baby or upturning their cradles, thus killing its tiny occupant. Some pigs were reported as having eaten a whole baby, so I guess vampires occasionally put the blame on some unfortunate sow (see Chaucer), when their own foul deed had been discovered by an outraged parent.

My next blog post will therefore be about one of my favourite shy creatures of the night (and twilight), the wild boar.

Cover of "Making a Living in the Middle A...

(historical sources: Christopher Dyer, “Making a Living in the Middle Ages” and

*”Medieval Children”, Nicholas Orme, Yale University Press)

animation sourced from heathersanimations.com

Cooking with Vampires and Witches (Beginners Part 4)

The perversity of the Welsh weather clearly knows no bounds. Typically, I woke up to blue and sunny skies this morning.

Last night, when my Italian flatmate and I went to see William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a Cardiff Castle open air theatre performance by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the rain held off for the first half of the play, but then came pelting down for the remainder. After two days of nearly constant downpour, the ground was rain-soaked and the audience was already damp and cold. How I wished I knew a spell to stop the deluge or be able to brew an elixir that made me impervious to the watery bombardment from above and would keep the rain drops out of my glass of wine.

The three weird sisters, brilliantly portrayed in all black body suits that also covered the faces of the actors, did their best to bewitch Macbeth and the rest of the audience, but nothing seemed to work.

Witches’ brews or elixirs like the one used in Macbeth or Asterix and Obelix’ village to make the Gauls stronger were made from a variety of herbal remedies, which were mixed with wine or alcohol. During the Middle Ages, alchemists liked to experiment with elixirs, hoping to turn ordinary metal into gold and silver, presumably without much success or history would have taken a very different turn and Witches R Us would now be ruling the corporate world.

Monks like the wonderful Ellis Peter’s Cadfael character would use healing elixirs with a certain amount of opium to put their patients into a restful sleep, while the monks in charge of the infirmary inmates would perform early operations or set broken limbs straight.

For those who believed in magic, certain elixirs would promise eternal youth and protection against all disease. Fairy tales often make use of elixirs for the purpose of quests. A prince or pauper (usually the youngest son of three) goes out to find a magical potion which will heal a fatal illness or wake someone from the dead or restore the victim of a spell. Witches, sorcerers, wizards and warlocks as well as druids would be in charge of the preparation of such a brew.

Opium Poppy Flower in Tokyo Metropolitan Medic...

While during their lifetime ancient druids were said to practice magic with their potions, today many scientists believe that druids used alcohol infused with honey and certain herbs or tree bark, which disinfected wounds and prevented infection among wounded warriors and villagers alike. We are only beginning to explore ancient remedies that were used in the medieval period, so we are probably in store for some surprises. Various herbs have already been identified as having exactly the properties monks, friendly witches and druids of the time claimed they had. Vampires would naturally not wish to heal their victims or restore eternal youth.

They are more likely to give their intended victim a tankard full of Absinth (Artemisia absinthium, a member of the thujone group of herbs). Although essentially used as a herbal concoction with healing powers in ancient times to cure liver problems and help with things like menstrual pains for example, the Absinth recipe invented by Mr Pernod in 1791 was quite a different thing. He did away with the bitter taste produced by the thujone herbs, adding fennel and aniseed to the mix, thus creating a not unpleasant drink. The drink became all the rage among the bohemian community of the day. The highly addictive psychoactive properties of Absinth inspired and wrecked many a famous artist’s life (Van Gogh for example).

Willow transitions into Dark Willow in "V...

Willow transitions into Dark Willow in “Villains”, with Tara’s blood splattered on her neck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has the power to seriously mess with people’s heads and for this reason Absinth was declared illegal during the years of 1916 and 1922. Herbs from the thujone group are biologically very similar to hemp, a low tetrahydrocannabinol strain or variant of Cannabis sativa. A less potent cousin of marijuana, hemp seems an ideal cooking ingredient for vampires to use for the purpose of subduing their victims. It takes up less energy to wrestle victims to the ground and also does away with the irritating screaming which might alert passing slayers like Buffy or vampire hunters of the Van Helsing ilk.

Hemp can therefore be found in every vampire’s larder. Opium won from poppy seeds was another way for monks in their cloisters’ infirmary to deal with very sick patients. As the source for many narcotics, poppy seeds (Papaver somniferum) did their Latin name proud, as they were sleep inducing, helping monks, druids and friendly witches to deal with particularly nasty wounds without the patient having to suffer any pain.

Such sedatives have been known to humans for millennia. Depictions of poppy seeds have been found in artefacts created by ancient Sumerians some 4000 years before Christ. The old Minoans and ancient Greeks knew the sedative properties of the stuff and even today this little “weed” graces the coat of arms of the Royal College of Anaesthetists by showing the flower and fruit of the opium poppy. Vampires love to keep up-to-date with latest developments in science and must therefor also have used poppy seeds in their cooking for several millennia.

Naturally, vampires cannot be harmed in the same way as humans can be by drugs. It always made me laugh when I saw Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer smoking a cigarette or drinking excessively. He knew that neither tobacco nor alcohol could do him any harm and used this fact to demonstrate his “superiority” over Buffy’s little Scooby gang. When Joss Whedon’s Willow Rosenberg goes “bad”, the writers used her addiction to magic as a metaphor for drug taking very effectively over a number of episodes.

Naturally, there’s nothing “superior” about drinking alcohol to excess, taking drugs or smoking, but for writers of vampire fiction these props have become valuable tools to describe vampire traits of character, showing them as being morally corrupt in comparison to the human protagonist. In my fictional Stinkforthshire there’s only been blood wine drinking so far, but with Willow and her school friends reaching the age of 12, perhaps it’s time in my next book to deal with the thorny issue of vampire sedatives in a responsible way.

Medieval Cooking for Vampires (Beginners Part 3)

While I’m not in favour of advocating fast food for humans, this culinary concept is not always a negative one.

Reading up upon medieval spells and remedies I was surprised to learn a medieval person’s diet was actually quite different from what I thought it would be. Far from all the yummy ham, capons, chickens and roasted piglets we see King Arthur, his knights and Queen Guinevere consume in the BBC’s Merlin series, most medieval people didn’t eat meat very often and getting a protein rich diet would have been quite rare for an average girl like Willow the Vampire.

Cooking lessons for humans would have been very different from today. For a start, carrots were either white or purple but not orange (not introduced until 17th century), no doubt pretty confusing for colour-blind witches and warlocks at the time. How do you tell such ingredients apart from radishes or mandrake?

Parsnips, onions, turnips (of Blackadder’s Baldric fame), apples, wild garlic, watercress, cabbage, beetroot, leeks, beans, eel and various cheap dried meats would augment a meagre diet that consisted mostly of “gruel” type broth made from barley, acorns, rye or buck wheat.

Even in the 10th century, a full four centuries after Arthur had first complained to Merlin about the outrageous practice of serving salad to his meat-loving king, bread as a daily household ingredient was relatively rare – grinding wheat was time-consuming labour for women and in any event, most households were grindingly poor.

Health issues in general were addressed with a haphazard approach. If it didn’t kill you and you survived the cure, the “healer” would be set up for life and make a good living. If you died, the healer was probably going to die too – at the stake, accused of sorcery! The remedy might not actually do you any good, but survival often depended on faith rather than the physician’s skill. With regard to food production, a medieval Vampire Council was particularly concerned about the high death rate among human infants and their mothers.

Caesarean births were surprisingly common – although the mother rarely survived. The method was mainly applied to save the child so it could receive baptism before death occurred. The understanding of conception was still a rather muddled affair and some bewildering, often occult remedies existed to help childless couples. Childbirth in general was a risky and confusing issue in medieval times:

Charm One: “To make a woman pregnant give to drink in wine a hares rumnet (NB: they probably meant rennet) by weight of four pennies to the woman from a female hare, the man from a male hare and then let them do their concubitus and after that let them forbear; then quickly she will be pregnant and for meat she shall for some time use mushrooms and, instead of a bath, smearing (NB: anointing with oils), wonderfully she will be pregnant.”

It seems hares were generally associated with fertility – personally, I suspect the consumption of wine might have done the trick…although the stink resulting from not washing might be rather counterproductive (pardon the pun). Hare’s tonic aiming to produce a male child consisted of a dried hare’s belly being shredded and then eaten by both partners, washed down with a drink.

Charm Two (for women whose foetus is found to be dead): “The woman who may have a dead bairn (child) in her inwards, if she drinketh wolf’s milk mingled with wine and honey in like quantities, soon it healeth.” An alternative method was to use the heart of a hare which, dried and pounded to a pulp, was mixed with frankincense dust and presumably also washed down with wine. In either case, the woman was more likely to die than be cured.

United Kingdom

United Kingdom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charm Three (for women who lost children early in infancy): “Let the woman who cannot bring her child to maturity go to the barrow of a deceased man, and step thrice over the barrow, and then thrice say these words:

May this be my boot

Of the loathsome late birth

May this be my boot

Of the heavy swart birth

May this be my boot

Of the loathsome lame birth.”

All manner of bizarre remedies existed for ear problems, bladder troubles, chapped lips in winter or year round baldness among men. I particularly like the recipe for getting rid off dandruff by mixing watercress with goose fat and smearing it on one’s head…I also like the advice, how to get rid of insects in one’s ears:

Collect the juice of green earth gall, or juice of horehound, or juice of wormwood, whatsoever of these you choose. Pour the juice into the ear, this will draw the worm out. If there’s dinning (NB: buzzing) in the ears, take oil, apply on to ewes wool, and when going to bed close up the ear with the wool. Remove it on waking.

Don’t you just love the last instruction? You can just imagine dozens of medieval peasants shouting at each other, because they’d stuffed their ears with ewe’s wool and forgot to remove their worm remedy).

Bladder troubles and kidney stones were cured by Dwarf dwosle or Pennyroula, which was pounded and mixed with two draughts of wine. The sufferer would drink this stuff and any stones the sufferer might have would be “forced out” and the healing process would begin in a matter of days.

Male baldness, an affliction the medieval Brit seems to have been particularly cursed with (no change to today’s specimen), was apparently treated with the juice of nasturtium and watercress. Bizarrely, this concoction was not smeared on the balding head, but on the man’s nose…which finally explains why men over forty have such an abundance of nasal hair.

These latter three remedies were excerpts from  Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, collected and edited by Revd Oswald Cockayne in London 1864 (fragments republished in Harriet O’Brien’s book “Queen Emma and the Vikings”, Bloomsbury 2005, where above charms also appear. NB: Revd “Cockayne” was cearly an early advocate of drugs, who had a sense of humour).

Reading about the diet and remedies prevailing in medieval households, I began to wonder, how vampires substituted their meagre pickings. Blood would not have been as nourishing as in later centuries, when vampires like Buffy’s Angel, Drusilla or Spike thrived in Sunnydale.

Trade paperback cover of Buffy: Season Eight V...

Trade paperback cover of Buffy: Season Eight Volume One, written by Joss Whedon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fifteen years on from Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer bloodsuckers have reason to complain about their diet once more, given the high fat, sugar, salt and protein content in human blood. Human fast food outlets and lonely microwave meals in front of the TV are to blame, but humans themselves are not responsible for the introduction of a fast food concept. Vampires might loathe to admit this, but obesity among the fanged community today goes back to a time, when an early medieval Vampire Council introduced a new concept to change their fellow fanged ones’ culinary experience.

Early medieval bloodsuckers were endlessly complaining about the scarcity of decent food. Firstly, because there weren’t enough humans around in a largely rural landscape, which meant the gap between meals could be rather long and secondly, because medieval human blood wasn’t very nutritious and it took several kills to get a satisfactory meal.

Later in the 10th century, when England had been fully Christianized, a network of nunneries and cloisters was erected across the country, a development greatly supported by the Vampire Council. Feasting became much easier and, as far as vampires were concerned, the concept of fast food chains was born.

Just knock at a cloister door, pretend you’re a pilgrim and hey presto, you get an instant meal in the shape of some delicious young novice or a Mother Superior showing off the whiteness of her wimple and the crispness of her neck.

International fast fang outlets such as “Murder King”, “MacDrainers” and “Starsucks” were created to cater for the travelling vampire in a hurry. This revolutionary concept made it possible for fanged communities to cover vast distances without worrying where to get their next meal (“Mine’s a double nun with French friar to go. Hold the garlic and relic bones. Extra mustard, if you please”).

The introduction of fast fang outlets helped to preserve vampires to this day. It explains, how 19th century vampires reached Sunnydale in California and later established a colony in Los Angeles, close to Angel’s old hotel.

(animation source: heathersanimations.com, photographs of Llandaff cemetry & Cathedral by Maria Thermann, Buffy book cover photo credit Wikipedia)