Archive for October, 2017

I spent about 1 1/2 hours shovelling manure out of my horse’s shelter. She lives with four other mares and it hasn’t been done for a while, so there was a lot. It was my second day working on this, and I still have barely made a dent. The first time, I ended up with a very sore wrist after moving about 2 cubic metres of manure, so I decided today that I would reflect on my life as a medieval groom.

1) I take orders from my mistress without complaint (aka my daughter, who sent me to fetch her forgotten helmet from the wagon).

2) I can’t take the day off just because I have a sore arm. I need to deal with the muck before it freezes solid. Also, the horses kept filling the shelter even as I tried to empty it.

3) A real medieval groom would probably not be making mental comparisons to the Augean Stables. They would, however, likely do as I did and stop for frequent visits with other peasants. They would probably also debate whether it was worth dumping some of the manure on their own fields to fertilize them, rather than hauling it all the way to the manure pile as instructed.

4) A real medieval groom probably used a shovel, rather than a pitchfork. I needed the pitchfork because the manure had gotten too hard to pick up easily with the shovel. A medieval wooden pitchfork wouldn’t have stood up to the stress I put on my metal-timed pitchfork. You can read more about medieval farming tools here: http://wyrtig.com/EarlyGardens/British/Tools/CultivationTools.htm. I was pleased to note that there is an old English word for manure shovel: Meoxscofle.

5) I couldn’t fine any direct evidence for medieval grooms using a wheelbarrow to carry manure, though they were used to carry everything from building materials to wine casks to people (http://www.larsdatter.com/wheelbarrows.htm). In this image, the men are using shovels to shovel ash: IMG_0771

(Konzil von Konstanz (ÖNB 3044, fol. 82r), c. 1465-1475)

6) My horse has a modern, if simple, shelter. You can learn more about medieval farm buildings and stables here and here.


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I have long thought that rhubarb was not known in medieval Europe, but recently was surprised to discover two references to it in the book Faith and Healing From the Medieval Garden (edited by Peter Denzel and Alain Touwaide, Boydell Press: 2008).

The first was in Chapter 3 (Plants in the Early Medieval Cosmos: Herbs, Divine Potency, and the Scalia Natura). It describes Kiranides, a text of five books on stones plants and animals attributed to Kyranus, the King of Persia. Often appended to it was a document on seven plants and planets (often known as Compendium Aureum and written by Alexius Affricus). The Compendium may be of Egyptian origin. The Greek text dates from 1-2C CE and was translated into Latin from Greek in the 1160s in Contantinople. In the Compendium, planetary powers were conferred on plants. However, there is very little information on exactly what powers were conferred. Artemesia, linked to the sun, made people take off their clothes (maybe an analogy to heat of sunlight?). Another text linked Mars to acrid grains like mustard, inclined to excessive heat (p 35). Herbs associated with the moon were good for the eyes because of the mystical affinity between the light of the eyes and the substance of the moon (p 37). While the Greek and Latin versions are fairly consistent in the plants associated with each planet, medieval translations of the Compendium into Middle English have many different plants. One version is in British Library MS Sloane 2948, which lists rubarbe with Mercurius (p 37-38).

The second reference appears in Chapter 5 (The Jujube Tree in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Case Study in the Methodology of Textual Archeobotany). It refers to a pharmaceutical treatise or recipe book known as Dynameron by Nickolaos Myrepsos from 14th C Byzantium (found in MS Paris, Bibliotheque Nationals de France, graecus 2243, fold. 11v-12r). It has a recipe for the golden antidote from Alexandria, which includes rhubarb among its many ingredients:

Golden antidote from Alexandria…it is active against…prepare it…in this way: it contains osari, the fruit of the balsam tree, henbane, two drachms; clove tree, opium, myrrh, galingale 2 drachms; balsam, cinnamon, cinnamon leaf, zedouarion, kikubrin, costus, coral, cinnamon, spurge, tragacanth, incense, styrax, reed, sage, baldmoney, celery, mustard, saxifrage, dill, anis, 1 drachm; aloe wood, rhubarb, alita moschata, castoreum, horehound, galanga, opopanax, anacardium, mastic, red sulfur (unburnt and crude), peony, thistle, flesh of palm trees, meadow saffron (red and white), rose, thyme, yellow flag, pennyroyal, birthwort, great gentian… – this is the Italian word; it’s a red root -, the bark from the root of mandrake, wall germander, spikenard, baldmoney, bays, carrot, long pepper, white pepper, balsam, karnabadin, amomum, myrtle, seed of lovage, seed of rue, seed of stone parsley 6 drachmas…Ibid, p 85).

It also shows up in the 1926 book “The Commerce Between the Roman Empire and India”, by E.H. Warmington. He claims that trade in rhubarb was not fully established until the “Arabian epoch” and by the 14th C it was being brought to Europe from Asia through the ports of Aleppo and Smyrna, where it was known as Turkey rhubarb.

More compelling evidence comes from Frances Wood, The Silk Road: two thousand years in the heart of Asia (University of California Press: 2002, p. 13), in which rhubarb appears in Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo’s report of his embassy in 1403–05 to Timur in Samarkand (a city in Uzbekistan): “The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand was from China: especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls, and rhubarb…”. Given the fact that it was listed with gemstones and fine fabrics, it is likely that rhubarb was considered a valuable commodity.

There are also two references to rhubarb in An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook, translated by Charles Perry and edited by Candida Martinelli (http://italophiles.com/andalusian_cookbook.pdf):

The Great Drink of Roots (p 12)

Take the skin of the stems of fennel, the skin of the stems of celery, the skin of carrot and the stem of chicory and Mecca fig, half a ratl [1 ratl=468g/1lb] each; three handfuls each of halhâl [pos. lavender], cilantro of the spring [growing by the water source], dawmirân, tamarisk, pennyroyal, ghâfit, chicory, mint, clove basil and citron basil; two ûqiyas [1 ûqiya=39g/7tsp] each of the seeds of celery, carrot and roses, fennel, and habba hulwa and nânûkha [two names for, or perhaps two varieties of, nigella seed], and half an ûqiya [1 ûqiya=39g/7tsp] of dodder seed.

The bag [a bag of spices that is boiled in the honey and then removed]: half an ûqiya [1 ûqiya=39g/7tsp] each of cinnamon, flowers of cloves, ginger, Chinese rhubarb, Indian spikenard, mastic, nutmeg and aloe stems, a mithqâl [1 mithqâl=5.7g/1tsp] of saffron, [added to] six ratls [1 ratl=468g/1lb] of honey, cleansed of its foam.

Cook the herbs and seeds in water that covers them until their force comes out; then take the clean part of it [strain it] and throw it in [spiced] honey.

Put this on the fire, and put the spices in the bag [and in the honey and] after they have become mushy, throw them into the drink and macerate them time after time, until their force passes into the drink. Lay it [the spice bag] aside. Take it [the honey] from the fire, let it cool, and keep until needed.

Drink one ûqiya [1 ûqiya=39g/7tsp] of this with three of water on arising, and see that the water is hot. Benefits: fortifies the stomach and the liver, opens blockages of the liver and spleen, cleans the stomach, and is beneficial for the rest of the phlegmatic ailments of the body.

 The Great Cheering Syrup: Way of Making It (p 14)

Take half a ratl [1 ratl=468g/1lb] each of borage, mint, and citron leaves, and cook them in [enough] water to cover until their strength comes out. Then take the clean part [filter it] and add it to a ratl [1 ratl=468g/1lb] of sugar.

Then put in the [spice] bag: a spoonful each of aloe stems, Chinese rhubarb, Chinese cinnamon [cassia], cinnamon and clove flowers. Pound all these coarsely, place them in a cloth, tie it well, and place it in the kettle [with the sugar and herb essence], macerate it again and again until its substance passes out, and cook until [the liquid] takes the consistency of syrup.

Take one ûqiya [1 ûqiya=39g/7tsp] with three of hot water. Benefits: It profits weak stomachs, fortifies the liver and cheers the heart, digests foods, and lightens the constitution gently, God willing.

 Finally, rhubarb appears in The Alphabet of Galen, a Latin handbook of ancient Greek pharmacy that circulated in Europe from the 7th to the 12th C AD. It has no connection to the 2-3 C physician Galen; in fact the content and style dates to before Galen’s time. The book describes 300 medicinal products. Item 231 is rhubarb:

Rhubarb, which some call “root” is rather large and somewhat black, delicate and very smooth, with a bitter fragrance and taste that is mildly astringent. When scoured and chewed it becomes sticky and turns saffron-coloured. The best rhubarb is Pontic. Rhubarb contains astringent properties, hence is crushed with wine and applied in the form of a compress to drain swellings, agglutinate wounds, and prevent discharges of blood. It is also used in antidotes. (The Alphabet of Galen, a Critical Edition of the Latin Text with English Translation and Commentary by Nicholas Everett. University of Toronto Press: 2012, p. 323).

Syrian rhubarb (rheum ribes) growing in Turkey

rhubarbBy Zeynel Cebeci – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48779247


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The Burqa

Recently, I was in Afghanistan and I saw a few women wearing burqas. IMG_0735It got me curious about the history of these coverings, since I had never heard of them before the rise of the Taliban.

The Times of India (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/Heres-the-truth-behind-the-veil/articleshow/5516871.cms) states: According to linguistic history, the word ‘burqa’ was in use in Arabia before the advent of Islam in the first quarter of the seventh century. At that time the word ‘burqa’ meant a piece of clothing that was used as a protection, especially in winters. The well-known Arabic dictionary Lisan al-Arab gives us two examples of its use during the pre-Islamic period: the first, as a cover for animals during the winter season and the second, as a covering chaadar, like a shawl for village women.

Facing History, in its Brief History of the Veil in Islam,  (https://www.facinghistory.org/civic-dilemmas/brief-history-veil-islam) notes that the veil itself predated Islam and was practiced by women of several religions. It also was largely linked to class position: Wealthy women could afford to veil their bodies completely, whereas poor women who had to work [in the field] either modified their veils or did not wear them at all.

Though the burka often appears confining and limiting to Western eyes, many devout Muslim women choose to wear the long veil. Some say that the coverage of the burka gives them a privacy that actually makes them feel freer to move about in society. However, others say that even though the burka protects women from the staring eyes of strange men, it does not prevent the wearer from being touched or pinched by passing men. (http://www.encyclopedia.com/sports-and-everyday-life/fashion-and-clothing/clothing-jewelry-and-personal-adornment/burka)

A different perspective, and one that implies the burqa has a shorter history, comes from Professor Mohammed Qadeer from Queen’s University (https://iramz.wordpress.com/2006/10/05/the-evolution-of-the-burqa/):  This tent-like cloak that completely drapes a woman’s body and face, with only a crocheted screen as an eye-piece, has been worn by women to go out in public for almost a century or more in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and parts of the Arabian peninsula. It literally draws a curtain around a woman and allows her to move about outside the family compound, while conforming to the religious-cultural custom of remaining secluded from men. Although some Afghan women have discarded the Burqa, after the fall of Taliban, an overwhelming majority continue to wear it as a matter of choice and social norm.

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I haven’t been posting lately, but I have been busy doing things. I have been working my way through spinning my fleece stash. I have been sewing up the finishing bits on many different projects. I even started a new piece of bobbin lace.

I also did some woad dyeing experiments with my friend Eluned. We used woad balls and fermented woad leaves from my garden, as well as commercial woad.


Today Elsebeth came over and taught a group of us how to make egg tempera, and then we played at painting. I quite enjoyed myself.

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