B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree-To Be A Queen
I’m going on a date with a handsome man called Alhelm, a real-life 10th century warrior and nobleman, who held lands in the northern area of the kingdom of Mercia. How do I know he’s handsome? Aethelflaed, from To Be A Queen, seems rather taken with him: “His blond hair, recently cut by the look of it, was sticking out at odd angles, where curls had been shorn, but not short enough to subdue them. His blue eyes were so pale that the pupils shone uncommonly black. A sprinkling of freckles spilled over both cheekbones and spread over his nose. He smiled at her … she felt an urge to smile back but also look away, at once a grown woman yet still a foolish child.” This is when she first meets him, and she is smitten.
So I imagine someone who looks a little like this:
Although the reality is probably more like this:
But, I muse while I’m straightening my hair, how can we know what they looked like?
The Mercians were the ‘Angle’ part of Anglo-Saxon; Pope Gregory, upon seeing some slaves in the market said they were “Not Angles, but angels.” (Non Angli, sed angeli) So, perhaps they were pale-skinned rather than pale-haired. They possibly originated from the area of Schleswig in southern Jutland, and Alhelm probably would have had a Teutonic (dolichocephalic) head-shape, * like Jeremy Irons rather than a Celtic (brachycephalic) head-shape, such as Russell Crowe’s (picture not avaible for security reason)
Ultimately, of course, if I, as the author, decide that he’s handsome, then he is. But leaving aside the romance, what would be the reality?
It’s a while since I’ve been on a date, and what I wear depends on where we’re going, and when. My manicure is going to be a bit of a mystery to him, as are my high heels. I’m pretty sure we won’t be going boating on the lake up at Windermere, given that in his day, one was likely to find a Viking boat or several bobbing about on any given stretch of water.
And it’s unlikely that we’ll go for a picnic; given that their flour is very coarsely-ground, I’ll be lucky to be served bread with no grit in it, and of course they don’t know how to make a sandwich. In fact, what sort of foods will they have?
The only form of sweetener at their disposal is honey, and they don’t use it to flavour their food.
But this is summer, and they have access to summer fruits – apples, pears, plums, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries gooseberries and blackcurrants are all native to the British Isles, although we don’t know whether they liked them all. **
So, he arrives. Not in a car, but on a horse. I’m dolled up and smelling of Valentino Donna, while he… Well, let’s go with sweat and leather. And horse. Is that the faint odour of beer? Yep, that too. Minty-fresh breath? Hmm. I open my mouth to speak. Aaaand now I realise I need my phrase book:
What is your name? Hwæt is þīn nama?
My name is ______ . Ic hātte ______ .
Thank you. Iċ þē þancung.
I can’t speak English well. Iċ ne mæġ wel Englisce sprecan.
Do you speak English? Spricst þū Englisce?
Is there someone here who speaks English? Is hēr ǣnig þe Englisce spricþ?
I’m sorry. Iċ besorgie hit.
Goodbye. Sīe þū hāl.
Where is the toilet, please? Hwǣr is se feltūn, bidde?
That should cover it!
(read it again, with this pronunciation guide: þ is a soft th sound, Ġ is soft – y. We’ll get by, if we both speak slowly/sláwlíce)
Are we going to the pub? No, they don’t really have those, but we are going to the Mead Hall where there will be a lot of alcohol sloshing around. Wine is a pretty expensive drink which only the rich can really afford. Luckily I am with an earl, who has a lot of money, but oh dear me, this wine is far too sweet for me – pinot grigio it is not! Their beor turns out to be something more akin to cider, and is, quite frankly, disgusting. Shame there’s no coffee…
Live music is always a bonus, but whilst I quite like folk music, this is a little ‘stripped back’ for my tastes:
(Have THIS playing in another window while you read on, if you’d like a bit of atmosphere!)
If I’d hoped that after a bite to eat and a couple of drinks, we would head off to the cinema, I’m soon divested of any such notion. Here, what passes for entertainment is the great Anglo-Saxon favourite, the riddle. And this one seems rather, well, rude:
What am I?
I’m a strange creature, for I satisfy women,
A service to the neighbours! No-one suffers
At my hands except for my slayer.
I grow very tall, erect in a bed,
I’m hairy underneath. From time to time
A beautiful girl, the brave daughter
Of some churl dares to hold me,
Grips my russet skin, robs me of my head,
And puts me in the pantry. At once that girl
With plaited hair who has confined me
Remembers our meeting. Her eye moistens.***
It is, of course …
Remember that bit about the toilet? Well, I soon find out where it is. No Ladies/Gents here, just a stinking latrine fenced off. Back in the hall, the candles have been lit, the fire is giving off a rosy glow (and quite a lot of eye-watering smoke, truth be told, for all there is a hole in the roof designed to suck the smoke skywards. Good job I can launder my clothes rather more easily than swilling them in the river and bashing them on the rocks.)
In my fiction and in real life, Alhelm is loyal and friendly. Never mind holding the door open for me, this guy would fight a Viking marauder and defend me with his life. I end up having a lovely time in the company of people who work together, live, laugh, and ‘play’ together – something we have all but lost in our modern world. He thinks it odd that I don’t have to be up at dawn to start work; I leave his world wondering how I would explain to the grandchildren how we met. Tinder? No, in the pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and it was fun. I even got used to the smell of sweat and leather, and at least he didn’t also reek of motorbike grease like … well, that’s another story; dates don’t always go so well!
Creative commons – author Danrok (Russell Crowe)
Wikipedia/Jeremy Irons – (Jeremy Irons pic used under terms stated here)
Commons attribution – Lyre picture
(All other pictures copyright free)
* Face of Britain – Robin McKie
**Debby Banham – Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England
***Translation – Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World
To Be A Queen