Tuesday, 28 April 2015

You've got the plague!

Mixed grain breads at dolls house 12th scale by MedievalMorsels

I was sitting outside last week. Spring has really sprung now, here in southern England.

My father used to partially quote, or misquote, a poem
"Spring is sprung,
the grass is ris!"
This nonsense poem has more lines. About birds and wings and things. But being of a then very tender age, I do not remember him reciting more, although he probably completed the poem. (He also liked to quote "Hiawatha" by Longfellow). Should you need to know, the above lines are attributed to one or other of: the English nonsense verse writer E.E. Cummings or the American poet Ogden Nash. But in reality we probably must put them down to Anon!

Anyway, I was sitting outside "distressing" some dollhouse wooden bowls and plates. Children were running home from school and I heard some words that suddenly brought back memories because, in my obviously uncaring youth, I had often uttered them too. I bet you did as well. And, what is more I bet millions of children across Europe have shouted this taunt for more than 100 years now, even though it references go even further back to Medieval times. Tell me, did your school playground taunts and tag games involve this now overheard and very mean-spirited slur?

 "You've got the Plague! You've got the Plague!"

The Black Death, the most virulent of a series of outbreaks of the bubonic plague, killed a massive proportion of the Medieval population across Europe during the years 1348-1350. In England alone it killed nearly a third of the population, and London's population was halved. The pestilence followed all of the trade routes to every country, carried by fleas on rats. It was believed to have originated in the Gobi Desert.  I really didn't know that. I thought it came to England, London probably, on ships from Norway. And perhaps it did! 
Malnutrition in England, due to bad weather conditions and consecutive failed harvests, was a reason why so many people sucombed to this malaise so easily. Death was swift, so you could say that a taunt that you had the plague was particularly cruel! Chances are though, that the taunter would have be incubating the dreaded disease as well! 

More one inch miniature food -bread- as featured in Wolf Hall by MedievalMorsels

 Wheat and other failed cereal crops either could not germinate or were flooded or blown down by driving rain. This meant a shortage of cereal meal thickening for pottages and for making bread. 
 And limited availability for pastry "coffyns", such a Medieval favourite.
A small chewetty or pie by MedievalMorsels
Fancy table pie with minced meats and fruits, spices

Root vegetables and beans rotted in the fields.

12th scale onions grown by MedievalMorsels

Organic dollhouse vegetables, cabbages by MedievalMorsels
In England the population drop following the Plague resulted in a higher value being placed on labour - the Peasants Revolt followed in 1381 challenging young King Richard II's authority. He, incidentally, grew to be a thoroughly disliked monarch, which is saying something by English Medieval and Tudor standards!

But farming and life for a peasant changed in the years after the Great Plague. The wool industry boomed. Less land was worked because previous levels of food production were no longer needed. They were less mouths to feed! The canny tenant Lord looked to save his money so indentured peasant labourer lost out to the more profitable woolly coated sheep. Many medieval hamlets and villages, devastated by Plague in the first place, were now abandoned as land-use changed and the less viable countryside could no longer sustain a working population.

Plague was to return many times in Europe and England. The Great Plague of 1665 brought death on a massive scale once again. A late as 1900 Australia and Portugal had outbreaks of bubonic plague.

MedievalMorsels is now on FaceBook! Please visit and @like@ if you can! 

Thursday, 23 April 2015

April 23rd is St George's day

Google reminded me this morning 23 April that it is St George's day, patron saint of England. Shakespeare was also born on 23 April, in 1564 and he died on the same day in 1616.
St George, probably born in Turkey, never set foot in England
St George is always depicted as a warrior knight of a saint, slaying a dragon whilst variously rescuing a maiden into the bargain. His emblem, a red cross on a white background, came to be adopted in the 12th century by England’s medieval king Richard I also known as Richard The Lion Heart. England’s medieval knights wore the cross on their tunics over chain mail to avoid confusion in battle. Richard, a French speaking king of England, was so fond of picking quarrels and fighting wars that he spent precious few months of his life ruling in the country.
Richard I (The Lionheart) an absent King medieval King of England

In fact Richard left sheriffs, his mother and his brother John to do that, and therein lies folklore surrounding a certain “Robin Hood”. And, reknowned warrior knight that he was, he did spend a considerable period captured and held to ransom! A bit of a disaster for England if the truth be known.

England came to adopt St George sometime later when he replaced St Edmund the Martyr as England’s patron saint in the 14th century. St George is patron saint of many other regions and countries including Aragon, Catalonia, England, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia and of many cities. He is also patron saint of scouts, soldiers, archers, cavalry and chivalry, farmers and field workers, riders and saddlers, and he helps those suffering from leprosy, plague and syphilis. So that was quite handy in medieval times!

Those medieval knights and nobles returning from far off lands did English cookery a big favour though.They brought back, and arranged trade in, many spices and new fruits and vegetables from the Near and Middle East, some with origins much further afield in China and India. The much loved tradition of adding sweet and warming spices to minced meat pies took off. And MedievalMorsels models’ listing notes reflect this.
One inch dollshouse food, Medieval or Tudor pie

Ornate pie with sweet and spicey meat filling, handmade 12th scale period dollhouse food
MedievalMorsels is now on FaceBook! Please visit and @like@ if you can!

Friday, 17 April 2015

Never buy a pig in a poke

A couple of things have piqued my interest about pigs (hogs, swine if you prefer) lately.  Two newly discovered facts which I will share below, and a custom order got me eventually modelling ham legs instead of just dreaming about doing this. So, all in all, I have been prompted to post about pigs!
A dollshouse miniature ham, one inch scale, perfect for a period dollshouse pantry

Hams away! 1:12 scale dollhouse miniature food by MedievalMorsels

Delicate trotters on a 12th scale leg of ham from a medieval forest pig
And here is my ham plus some black puddings and red herrings hanging in client Linda's beautiful 1550 Tudor dollshouse setting at her home in Lichfield, a noted medieval city.
A close up of Linda's wonderful dollshouse period kitchen of 1550

The one inch scale Tudor dollhouse kitchen in all its glory

A short while ago I was idly flicking through the TV channels when I accidentally paused on some channel, but with my laptop engaging my full attention. I was alerted when I heard the narrator exclaim about pigs wearing pokes. My interest was immediately aroused, I have always wondered what a pig in a poke really is. On the screen was old anthropological film footage in black and white, taken in Indonesia I think, and I saw were three cute long legged pigs running about on the edge of some scrub forest. They were wearing something around their necks and this gave them a rather comical air.

One of my first clients in San Francisco, brought up in the country but now living in the city, said that she had been taught never to buy a pig in a poke. (We were probably talking about customised orders of dolls house scale model food!) This is a common saying on both sides of the Atlantic. One that we use a lot today in my experience, after all we all like to get good value when parting with hard earned money.

 A pig in a poke is an offer or deal that is foolishly accepted without being examined first. When researching period foods I had also come across the many centuries old advice to never buy a pig in a sack, or a bag. Useful advice indeed because if you aim to buy a suckling pig at your town market you don’t want to be sold a butchered cat or pup instead. Related terms are “sold a pup” and “ let the cat out of the bag”. My oh my! This gets more and more interesting etymologically speaking, but a little gruesome...

So I promised my client that I would find out about the expression when I modelled new pork, ham and bacon products for MedievalMorsels’ dolls house miniature food range. Well okay, I admit that was quite a long time ago and so far I have only modelled whole hams from the ancient foraging forest pig. 
In this medieval woodcut pigs are enjoying the fruits of the forest - autumn acorns!

The other pig item that caught my attention was a trailer for a BBC radio programme yet to be broadcast about local and regional foods. One programme was/is to be about the Tamworth pig and, presumably, Wiltshire ham. The food expert was saying the Tamworth pig is about the closest domesticated breed we have to the ancient forest pig, so my ears pricked up at this. I am looking forward to hearing that particular porcine programme!

Almost 20 years ago in 1998 two Tamworth pigs escaped from an abattoir in Wiltshire, breaking through a fence and swimming across the River Avon to leg it to freedom. The Tamworth Two, as they became known, quickly became more famous than notorious escaped criminals. They were spotted on and off by a now pursuant international press pack, enjoying their freedom and neatly evading their own capture whilst simultaneously capturing the world’s attention. This was the before the days of You Tube phenomena, but you could say they had gone viral! These enterprising and intelligent porcine siblings were photogenic too, with lots of ginger hair and delicate snout, body and limbs.

Endearing and intelligent, pigs have it all.

So was a poke  another type of sack or bag? Armed with real anthropological evidence about free range pig rearing practice it seemed as though today’s meaning had got removed from an original piggy use of the word “poke”.  This poke was a sort of necklace, if you will, for a female pig and a collar, if you prefer, for a male pig. The poke was made of three long robust sticks tied together around the pig's neck in a widely overlapping triangle. A perfect remedy to prevent your pigs roaming into dense scrub land or away from the forest clearing.

And the Tamworth Two? Well their story ended happily. Aged only six months when they escaped Sundance, the Tamworth boar and with his sister Butch (geddit?) enjoyed a week on the run scavenging in the back gardens of locals. I expect they were only too pleased, assuming all the potentially prize-winning vegetables were on the allotment. 
They were captured, bought and sponsored by a daily newspaper and re-homed in luxury at a Rare Breeds Centre in Kent, where they attracted many visitors. In 2004 the BBC even made a drama about them. They died at the ages of 13 and 14 respectively. It turns out that these wily pigs were actually Tamworth and wild boar cross-breeds, which may account for their innate ability to outwit their handlers and pursuers chasing them for a full week around Malmesbury in rural Wiltshire.

The future of Butch (left) and Sundance (right) was secured by the Daily Mail newspaper

And the thing is if they had been wearing pokes they would not have escaped at all! 

But...to return to the saying "never buy a pig in a poke". A poke is also a Middle English word for a small sack or bag, and there are similar words in many old northern European languages. So we are back to our first presumed interpretation of the old saying. The anthropological interlude with collars was, in reality, a porcine "red herring"!
Preserved red herring, 12th scale dollhouse miniature food beloved of Medieval, Tudor and Renaissance diners

How about the meaning of the word cowpoke anyone? Sure, it a colloquial term for a cowboy. But in times gone by the practice of using a forked branch as a collar poke was a sure way to keep foraging cattle in the enclosure or close to the settlement.

MedievalMorsels is now on FaceBook! Please visit and "like" if you can! 

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Easter is here! Heralding Spring at last.

All of Medieval society looked forward to the end of winter, with Easter and springtime to follow and the promise of nature's new growth. For a peasant family the spring season meant new planting, new growth and, hopefully, newly grown tender shoots to help sustain a family that had run down its monotonous winter stock of pickled or salted vegetables. Yuk!

Tending the Medieval vegetable and herbe garden.

As well as plants such as spinach and lettuce grown as "sallette" or salad crops, the green tops of vegetables such as beets and radishes would have typically been eaten too. And there would have been wild leaves such as dandelion, sorrell, orache and young nettle leaves to forage for! 

Encouraged by a Ukrainian friend, I did once made a nettle soup having tasted hers. Made from the non-stinging variety of nettle and picked well away from the roadside and passing dogs I hasten to add. It tasted okay I suppose, and I do remember it was a pleasant bright spring green colour. 

 Here is MedievalMorsels' plate of salad leaves, miniature food for a one inch scale period or rustic dollshouse.

MedievalMorsels' period dollhouse one inch miniature food - a bowl of green salad

Medieval “dietetic law” stated that vegetables were a source of disease, especially if eaten raw. Onions, garlic, leeks and cabbage were believed to be an exception to this rule so long as they were cooked thoroughly. In fact the noble classes were advised by the physic (doctor) to “beware green sallettes”. 

Peasants would  not have any interest in such pronouncements by their learned "betters" and would in fact have grown herbes and vegetables behind their cottage, either for the pot or to eat raw. The manor and the monastery would have had a herbe garden too, for medicinal purposes at least.

Now traditionally it is also eggs at Easter time that symbolically represent re-birth.  Eggs were classified as meat by the church in Medieval Europe so could not be eaten during Lent, What could be done with surplus eggs then? Well, they were coated in liquid fat or wax and set aside to keep (hopefully) until Easter Sunday. Some were coloured using extracts from a range of roots, wild berries or herbs. 

A dish served by Thomas More in the BBC Tudor drama "Wolf Hall", based on Hilary Mantel's prize winning novel 

 But how about this for MedievalMorsels' Tudor dolls house dish, which happens to have been inspired by the BBC's dramatisation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. It combines both spring greens and eggs!

MedievalMorsels 1:12 scale dollhouse miniature food, spinach and eggs with plenty of bread and cheese

MedievalMorsels is now on FaceBook! Please visit and "like" if you can!