Do What with the Porpoise Hide?!?: Medicine in Anglo-Saxon England

Treating moon sickness was relatively easy. You get the hide of a porpoise, cut it into strips, and beat the sufferer with the strips of hide. Cure follows soon after.

Now, I suspect that most modern medical schools would take a dim view of belaboring a patient with strips of sea-creature hide in order to cure anything. (Not that the faculty have not been tempted to do that to students, or ER physicians to members of that select group known with a distinct lack of fondness as “frequent flyers*.” Nooooooo.) However, it wasn’t all that long ago that slapping someone to break them out of a hysterical trance, or in the case of a small child, dousing him with a large bowl of cool water, was quite acceptable. It worked in most cases. Today? Both would be assault and battery in many jurisdictions, even if the cure worked.

However, the mind and culture were rather different back, oh, 1500 years or so ago, and in the Anglo-Saxon world, some ailments responded best to physical stress, in this case, flogging with a porpoise hide, among other things. The use of flagellation was not rare in Medieval medicine, and seems to have had truly beneficial results in some cases. Porpoise had several magical properties, so and were hunted for food, so the hide would have been available and known by patient and family alike. I’m sure a psychiatrist would have a field day with reasons why the cure worked. I’m not going to speculate. It worked, and was considered a standard treatment, and that’s that.

Once we get into the period after AD 900 CE or so, herbs and prayers replace magical formulae. Mostly. The edges of the world, like the Celtic Fringe (Ireland, western Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Galicia, Brittany) held onto things for much longer. Certain other rites and traditions were retained because they worked, despite what the Church might have said officially. One suspects that a lot of parish priests turned blind eyes when they found small bundles of medicinal herbs tucked close to the front of the altar, and ignored rumors of someone gathering healing plants from the churchyard. The Lord worked in mysterious ways, after all, and the bishop was far away. And better to bless the plants, which the Lord had put on earth to help people, than to encourage a relapse into paganism out of desperation.

So leechbooks** included lots of strange-to-us remedies. As it turns out, several of them work, and in one case work so well that it is used to treat MRSA infections. Others used a combination of natural antibiotics, natural anticoagulants, soporifics (often with a little something to keep the patient from getting too sleepy), fats to prevent drying, and the like to start the body healing. Anti-fever and anti-cough preparations were common. Some of the plants are used today in well-known and respected drugs (digitalis, anyone? Belladonna to dilate your eye before getting an eye exam?) Others, as it turns out, deserve more study. And a few seem to have had magical or placebo effects that we no longer experience because we don’t worry about suffering from elf-shot, or being afflicted by dwarves, or bothered by the evil-eye. Back in the 500s-800s, those were real problems in Anglo-Saxon and Celtic Britain, and needed to be taken seriously by any good practitioner.

I’m not going to leap over into the “natural medicine” side of the argument any time soon, but it’s intriguing to try and imagine the mental world where the leechbooks and other writings came from. I will be incorporating parts of what I’m learning into two books, at least, in two different series. The complicated nature of many remedies implies a full-time herbalist and medical specialist, a leech in the old sense, who did nothing but prepare common remedies and treat the ill and injured. I need to add that to one story in particular, because it fits with the protagonist’s task, and gives him something that he can also do to earn trust when among strangers.

*These are individuals who do not have serious medical problems that truly do need immediate care, but often include people who are seeking pharmaceuticals. Some people who make multiple ER trips have 100% legitimate reasons, and they are NOT “frequent flyers.” When an incoming individual is offered something strong, and demands something “even better” that is a sign.

**”Leech” meaning physician goes way back to the Proto Indo-European root meaning a magic worker or one who gathered words. In Old Gothic and Old English, it carried the sense of enchanter of words as well as healer. The Irish Gaelic term has similar meanings. Words had power.


The Longest Night of the Year

“Iron for the birthday, bronze carried long,

Wood from the burning/stone out of song,

Fire from the candle-ring/water from the thaw.

Six signs the circle, and the grail gone before.”

The very first time I read the novel The Dark is Rising, I memorized the poem that comes from. I can still see in my mind’s eye the Walker, the rook’s feather that fell in through the roof hatch/skylight, the Dark Rider, and hear oh so faintly the aching sound of a tune played on an antique flute as a door between times opens and closes. Set in the Thames Valley in England, the book, and the others in the series by the same name, taps English, Cornish, and Welsh folklore in ways I’d never encountered before. They are urban fantasy before such a genre existed. Although officially classed as YA today, they are so rich that adults read and enjoy them today.

Today is the Winter Solstice. If Sommerwende is a day for parties and savoring the warmth and bounty of summer, the winter turning is a time of dread and fear. Will the sun return? Will there be enough to get through the hard, lean times ahead? The return of the sun was cause for rejoicing and wild celebration, even as people still looked over their shoulders. The weeks around the solstice held power. The veil between the worlds thinned, and the Wild Hunt rode. Ghosts walked, and the price for denying hospitality might be severe indeed. It was the time to bless the fruit trees and share the joy of the season with them (wassailing the orchards). War was supposed to stop, at least in Christendom. Since only fools, the mad, or Teutonic Knights actually wanted to fight during midwinter, the rule was generally upheld.

I’ll be out after dark, looking at stars, admiring Christmas lights, and watching Orion rise above the trees. Storms are due overnight, bringing hard cold and screaming winds. Winter does not go easily, even as days slowly lengthen.

When light from the lost land shall return, Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,

And where the midsummer tree grows tall, By Pendragon’s sword the Dark shall fall.

Sharp Pointy Things (and the Men who Wielded Them)

Readers know that I have an interest in swords, both for fencing* and as actual weapons. Scotland is rather well known for a history of solving disputes with blades (and armies, and ambushes, and daggers, and . . . ) It also has a very strong martial tradition and has hit above it’s weight class in terms men involved in England and Britain’s wars, as well as their own local conflicts.

The Church of the Holy Rood, Sterling.

Regimental banners at the Church of the Holy Rood, Sterling.

“Hindoostan,” with the Duke of Wellington. York Minster military chapel, York Minster. Several churches had small side chapels for multiple regiments and wars.

The church of the Holy Rood (Cross) is fascinating, and is only one of a number of old churches that I meandered around in. And got cricks in my neck, staring up at the timbers.

I noticed the split in the top beam after I took the photo in the Church of the Holy Rood. Who knows how long it has been like that? Decades? Centuries?

And then there’s the “armory” at Sterling Castle, which has a selection of pointy things.

The big two-handed beasts are on the other wall. Some of the swords looked as if they had been used at some point, but you can’t get close enough to tell. I wanted to “check the balance” on one, but for some reason the docent had left the key back at the office. . . Too bad. I mean, I’ve got the right coloring, the right general shape (“sturdy”), DadRed’s family has clan members (McKay among others), and I know that “The pointy end goes into the bad guy, yes?”**

I guess it was a liability thing. Sigh.

*However, having been slashed on the padded arm by an associate who forgot that we were doing foil and not saber, you can still leave serious muscle bruises with a fencing foil.

** One of the great lines in The Mask of Zorro. I love Anthony Hopkins’ expression when Antonio Banderas explains how to use a sword.

The Falkirk Wheel

How do you move boats up and down hill without using a long series of locks, such as Neptune’s Staircase on Lock Ness? Especially when you have a lot of old, leaky locks, a bridge that’s going to block the canal, and a few other problems? First, you hire a Scots engineer. Then . . .

Until 2002, when boats needed to go from the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde Canal, they descended 100 feet (33 m) through a series of 11 locks. Each lock has two gates. The gates were opened and closed by pure muscle power. It made for a long, slow, tiring day at best. There had to be a better way to get around Stirling, if you were a boat. Using a crane to lift the boats would have been dangerous and amazingly expensive, because of lifting boats and water up and down requires a LOT of power. or it would have . . .

Enter the brilliant design of the Falkirk Wheel ship-lift. It rotates, using the weight of the water to lift water and boat. [All photos by author]

As you approach the wheel from the uphill (Antonine wall) side, you boggle at the steep hill that you descend and the size of the equipment. If it is moving, the silence is also a bit surprising. for a huge piece of machinery, it makes very little noise.

The base of the lower tower. Note operator for scale.

The idea is simple and amazing. Canal boats or personal boats sail into the box. The watertight doors close, and the mechanism begins turning the wheel. Gravity and momentum take over, and as the weight of the upper chamber pushes down, it raises the lower chamber. Past a certain point, momentum takes over and the boats trade places.

Above you see that the lift is just starting . . .

Boat in the air!

Boat coming down. Note tourists for scale.

I’m an engineering geek. I was oogling the equipment and devouring the tech specs, and so on, the the mild amusement of my guide. My parents are also engineering buffs, so we had fun discussing the physics. The power needed is much lower than you’d think. It needs 22KW to start moving and uses 1.5 kWh to rotate. That’s not much electricity at all.

Peak – Sylphium? Tree? Whale? Oil?

A fellow environmental historian noted the other day that no-one really talks about “peak resource” anymore as part of their arguments for conservation and moderating use of natural resources. That was a big thing in the mid to late Twentieth Century – the world would run out of iron, or oil, or aluminum, or copper, or coal, farmland, or other things. Thinking about it, I’ve not heard that argument used for at least a decade, I think since global warming/anthropogenic climate change became the greater concern. As is my wont the idea sent me down a bit of a research rabbit-trail. Have we humans, globally, ever run out of a resource completely? Not local shortages or failures, but the entire world?

The Roman plant called sylphium (or silphium) might be one of the few resources that westerners used to extinction. And that’s a maybe because a Turkish botanist thinks that the plant might have survived in Anatolia. (Not the genus, but the specific plant). The plant contained chemicals in its resin and sap that affected female hormones, causing abortions or temporary infertility depending on the woman’s condition when she took it. Given what Roman patriarchs did with unwanted children (ordering them exposed after birth) and the risks of pregnancy and maternal death, it’s easy to see why the plant – per tradition – got used up and vanished.

When I came through school the first time, I was taught that the reason for the Industrial Revolution and the switch to coal was because England (and the rest of Europe) ran out of trees. They’d reached peak wood, forcing the shift, which led to the first Industrial Revolution. Or, they ran out of big trees for building and looted North American forests, then ran out of fuel wood, and so on. Well, it turns out that the first one wasn’t true, and the second one was partly true. Managed woodlands in England and Wales provided wood for iron smelting and other uses well into the 20th Century, as it turns out. Cost had more to do with it, both the cost per ton of hardwood charcoal vs coal, and the cost of transportation. Coal measures and seams near water were far cheaper, and provided a steadier, more intense heat, and could be worked more quickly than waiting for wood to grow, season, and then be converted into various fuels. The English had been using coal since at least the Tudor days (1400s), to the point that London passed rules about burning coal in order to preserve air quality. Ship timbers were a slightly different story, because the Royal Navy wanted live-oak and other timbers that had grown in the proper shapes and didn’t need to be pieced, carved, or spliced. England and Ireland were running out of those, and with the mess in the Baltic [thanks Sweden and Russia!] that supply of mast timbers had gotten both expensive and somewhat precarious. So off to North America they went. If the government owns it, you don’t have to pay for it, if you’re part of the government, na ja? And in theory, there was no competition or risk of wood theft.

Whale oil was another resource that almost disappeared. Whale oil and oil lamps were better and cheaper than candles, were more reliable than olive oil lamps, and whale oil could be used for mechanical things that required a very light oil that wouldn’t go rancid as quickly as walnut, olive, and other plant-based oils. It was lighter and less viscous than olive oil, so it could be used in much colder temperatures. Whale oil had a distinct scent (bad) and the odd knack of bleaching fabric that it got on – sort of the opposite of used engine oil. [Or so I’ve been told. Really.] Baleen whales had a different chemical composition to the fat in their blubber, making it much better for most purposes than the blubber of toothed whales. This led to the hunting-out of many whales, to the point of near extinction. However, the search was already on for a replacement for whale oil, preferable something as good as the oil but without the stink-and-stain properties. Rapeseed (canola) oil, petroleum oil, and other things also came into use, and peak whale became less of a worry for everyone except corset makers. They needed the baleen, the ling, flexible filters baleen whales used to separate krill and larger fish from seawater. Then cheap, thin steel appeared on the market, and corsets also switched from baleen to metal for stays.

Then it became peak petroleum, and peak aluminum, and . . . Humans keep finding replacements, or work-arounds, or new sources, or what have you. I suspect that’s partly why we don’t hear about “peak resource” anymore. It doesn’t sell what the environmental activists are trying to do. I firmly believe in recycling what can be recycled, and not wasting things. But I also believe that people will find a solution.

If You Don’t Need It, Why Keep It? Urban Edition

One reason people assumed for so long that the period from AD 410 CE to 800 was an age of darkness and end of civilization was that in England, cities disappeared. A few of the Roman cities continued on, but most lapsed into disuse and faded from memory as other than a great place to find pre-cut rock for other things. More mainland Roman urban areas lasted through the Dark Ages/ Late Antiquity and into the Medieval period, far more. For English language historians [glowers at Gibbon], the conclusion was obvious: The end of Rome meant a dark age of poverty, hunger, ignorance, and barbarity until the slow, faltering rebirth of the Classical period in the Renaissance.

Besides Gibbon having a large bone—Columbian mammoth sized bone—to pick with Christianity, a lot of the assumptions made by early historians came from not knowing what they didn’t know. If you depend on government records, and you don’t have a literate government, well . . . Also, it was assumed that Rome had used all stone all over, like the cities in Italy or Gaul. Thus, the absence of evidence meant that nothing remained because someone had quarried the ruins, namely the benighted barbarians. The last assumption was that once founded, cities lasted forever because, well, they were cities. Cities don’t just go “poof” and vanish. People need cities. Right? Yes?

That is, until they don’t. In the past 50 years or so, more and more historians are working with archaeologists and climate people and physical geographers and realizing that, “No one needed that town/small city, so why keep it around?” If the garrison marches off to Rome never to return, are the suttlers and tavern-keepers and “professional ladies” going to stay around? What about the farmers who supplied Rome, and who had to pay taxes in grain, or wine, or fabric? If the market no longer exists, why produce for it when you can do better by farming or raising other things? Or by letting more land go fallow to regain fertility? If your national government stopped requiring tax payments of any kind, would you work as hard if you could make the same income in fewer hours? That’s what happened in Roman Britain, and other places on the fringes of the empire. In some districts, when the army was recalled closer to Rome proper, dependents, the government, higher clergy, and everyone else who could went with them. So who needs towns?

The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes didn’t. They had a lower population density, and farmed. They collected “taxes” in animals, some grain, and so on. A lower population concentration didn’t need cities. If marginal trade routes had been abandoned, why put towns there? Especially when the plague of Justinian combined with sucky weather in the Northern Hemisphere in the 500s-600s to lower the overall population of the continent and Britain? Towns faded away. London, York, a few others continued but smaller, built with wattle-and-daub rather than stone. A Saxon lord’s “palace” was a large wooden hall, not a stone praetorium. Those don’t leave a lot of archaeological evidence, unless you realize that you need to look for discolored patches of dirt in a pattern. It can be very, very subtle. A hearth, loom weights if they were abandoned, post holes, lost bones from a meal, perhaps bits of pottery . . . That’s not a lot to go on. No wonder everyone focuses on graves and hordes! Metal is much easier to find nowadays.

So a lot of Roman towns and villages went away, abandoned gradually as the need for them faded. Rome didn’t come back, the new arrivals (when they arrived) didn’t need them, or the towns were in bad locations for defense. Many would revive later, in the 800s-900s, and after as trade increased once more and the weather became drier and warmer. London became a city with stone again, as did York and others. New towns and cities grew as needed, or as planted to take advantage of resources. The sea ate a few old towns, such as Dunwich.

In a way, we’ve seen the same thing in the US. The Great Plains and West had a lot more towns and villages before the 1930s, because people needed schools, post offices, shops, and government services within reach, and the population had not concentrated as much in urban areas. After the Depression and WWII, cities seemed to be where prosperity and trade flourished. Mechanization and then automated irrigation meant that each acre farmed needed fewer people. The Green Revolution of the 1960s-70s allowed fewer people to grow far more food. So the tiny towns disappeared, then the small villages, then the smaller towns . . . When the grocery store closed and the post office went away, that was often the death-knell. Now we can add hospitals and medical clinics to that list, thanks to events of the past 20 years or so.

A city unneeded goes away. And often gets recycled. Why not? We historians just didn’t realize that, because we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we’d never observed the process in our lifetimes. Now we know, and a lot makes more sense.

But it was still a pretty dark age if you were in the wrong (or right?) place at the wrong time.

It’s officially fall. . .

I wore tweed for the first time this academic year. New tweed, too. One of two pieces of tweed I got in Edinburgh. Because if you are in Scotland, and don’t do kilts, then why not tweed? Especially since THE great tweed and sporting shop was literally up the hill from my hotel. With a second nice tweed place just down the slope from Shop #1.

Tweed is interesting stuff. it is a relatively rough, heavy woolen weave, dyed in greens, browns, russet, and black. The goal is to blend into the background of heather, gorse, and grasses. Most Americans don’t think of tweed as camo, because we don’t hunt in heather and gorse. And tweed in the US is generally associated with England, academics, writers (bonus points for suede patches on the elbow), and the like. But note how the gent below matches the lower plants around him. I’ve seen better matches, worn by serious hunters. Tweed works.

Hoggs Bowmore tweed breeks. Taken from Pinterest:

However, I’m not trying to blend into gorse and heather, because we don’t have any of that down here, and they don’t make tweeds for “short grass prairie pheasant hunting.” Besides, I’d have to wear blaze orange over the tweed, which undoes the “disappear into the background” aspect. So my tweeds tend to be traditional browny-green, or in this case, blue-grey. Tweed works with multiple colors, since it is a color blend, although I have one jacket that I have to be careful with. The green is somewhat yellow, and that means a lot of other greens do not work at all. On the other hand, I wore a blue tweed with a teal-brown plaid skirt and blue-grey shirt and it looked great. I’m also confident enough to wear it in the first place. Tweeds can be a bit like hats that way.

Tweed also requires a bit of a tweedy personality, which I have in spades. 😉 I got my first piece of non-borrowed tweed as a gift while in grad school. Waistcoats are my preference, but I good fitting tweed jacket is a lovely thing. Especially when on clearance.

Alas for me, most women’s tweed is a modern cut. I sighed over an A-line skirt at Tweed Shop #1, but it only reached just below the knee. I wear mid-calf or longer. Most tweed skirts are even shorter, sort of pencil-skirts, to be world while following the hunt. Women who do hunt wear breeks [knee breeches] like the men do. I also oogled the jackets, but I ended up getting a lovely waistcoat in a charcoal blue tweed with deep blue-purple lining.

Down the street, literally, was a shop that had lighter, non-Harris tweed things. A car-coat sort of garment in the window caught my eye. I went past two or three times, then succumbed to the lure and went in. Oh boy. It seems that car-coats and similar are the shop’s specialty, and they had all sorts of traditional shades as well as very modern colors. I tried the one from the window, but they were out in my size. Then I found a darker one, also blue-grey. It fit perfectly, has lots of interior and outside pockets, and was reasonably priced. The gent was a bit amazed. “I’ve never seen someone find what she wanted so quickly*, Miss.” He was pleased that I was happy, and I departed with a new mid-weight dress coat or long work-jacket.

I’m sort of a bookish, tweed personality. Now, I just “need” the $$$$ shotgun to go with said tweed . . .

*I call it tactical shopping. Find location, find target item, confirm fit and color, pay for item. I don’t enjoy loitering around shops and getting in the way.

The Ends of the (Roman) World

Well, I’ve seen one of them. The other end isn’t quite as safe to visit right now.

At the gate to the remains of part of the Antonine Wall. Latina Magna Est!
Beyond this point be barbarians.

Hadrian’s wall is the more famous barrier the Romans built in Britain, in part because it was so visible for so long, and in part because it lasted over two centuries. It marked the dividing line between Roman occupied Britain, and Roman influenced Britain. At least the Romans wanted to influence it. Sometimes it was a negative influence.

The Antonine Wall vs. Hadrian’s Wall. From: DigitScotland. Creative Commons Fair Use:

The Antonine Wall, credited (or at least claimed) by Antoninus Pius, was farther north, near modern Sterling. You have to know how to get there in order to get there. It lacks the signage and markers of the southern edition, in part because it was never as permanent or impressive as Hadrian’s wall. Also, the land around the northern barrier is more settled and farmed, and too valuable to be left pasture, unlike far more of Hadrian’s wall.

What you see are two artificial mounds with the fossa, the ditch, in the middle. I’m looking north, toward the dangerous side. Behind me the land slopes more gently, and that was the Roman side. You had an interior ditch, then a wall made of turves (turfs – sod and dirt and wood), a deeper and steeper ditch that donated material for the wall, and then a clear line of sight toward the barbarians. The trees would most certainly NOT block the view.

When I was at the Antonine wall, it was me, one dog walker, the rest of the group, and a mowing crew. I played “dodge mower” as they trimmed knee-high grass back to lawn height.

Looking south from Hadrian’s Wall. The sun was NOT that bright, I assure you. Notice that there are fewer trees here in Yorkshire.

I’ve also been along most of the Limes, the anti-German Roman defensive line that ran from the mouths of the Rhine to the Main then the Danube. From there it followed the river, more or less, until it reached the “Pontic shores where the snowflakes fall,” as Kipling put it. I’ve been from Budapest to the Antonine Wall, but not yet to Rome or to the eastern end of the Roman world.

Been there, hiked that, as far as the last a in Pannonia. From Ray Bishop History.

Some day, perhaps . . .

þæt wæs grim cyning: Anglo-Saxon Literature

“That was a grim king.”

The phrase is from the Anglo-Saxon poem “Deor” or as I learned it, “Deor’s Lament.” It is one of the complete (or so it appears) Anglo-Saxon poems we have, and describes mythological and historical figures who have bad times. The refrain is enigmatic to put it mildly. One translation I read (grew up with) was “That passed away – This also may.” Another is “That was overcome, so may this be.” Did the poet mean “I might survive these hard times,” or “May I overcome these hard times” in the sense of a prayer of sorts? The original word leaves it unclear. “Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.”

Other poems, often borrowed by people like J. R. R. Tolkien (“The Wanderer”), are equally cheerful and encouraging. However, when you look at things like the Exeter Book fo Riddles, you get a different view of the Angles and Saxons. Ribald double-entendres, witty word-play, bad puns, and other things abound.

One of the most famous riddles is number (modern listing) 25:

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht, wifum on hyhte,
neahbuendum nyt; nængum sceþþe
burgsittendra, nymþe bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah, stonde ic on bedde,
neoþan ruh nathwær. Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu ceorles dohtor,
modwlonc meowle, þæt heo on mec gripeð,
ræseð mec on reodne, reafað min heafod,
fegeð mec on fæsten. Feleþ sona
mines gemotes, seo þe mec nearwað,
wif wundenlocc. Wæt bið þæt eage.

Or, in modern English:

I am a wondrous creature, a joy to women,
a help to neighbours; I harm none
of the city-dwellers, except for my killer.
My base is steep and high, I stand in a bed,
shaggy somewhere beneath. Sometimes ventures
the very beautiful daughter of a churl,
a maid proud in mind, so that she grabs hold of me,
rubs me to redness, ravages my head,
forces me into a fastness. Immediately she feels
my meeting, the one who confines me,
the curly-locked woman. Wet will be that eye.

OK, now, before your minds finish going where I suspect they will go, the answers (the collection lacks a list at the back) might be an onion, a leek, or mustard, but the onion is the probable solution.

We don’t have much Old English humor that survived down the ages, or much of anything at all, really, compared to other languages. The Church saved some things, especially if they were religious (“The Dream of the Rood,” and “Caedmon’s Hymn”) or government (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles). Otherwise we are fortunate to have Beowulf, The Wanderer, and a few others.

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? [#]Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?Where the giver of treasure?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu?Where are the seats at the feast?
Hwær sindon seledreamas?Where are the revels in the hall?
Eala beorht bune!Alas for the bright cup!
Eala byrnwiga!Alas for the mailed warrior!

If you think you might know those words, well, Tolkien caught the sense.

In the novels, the lines are spoken by Aragorn, but the way the movie was done, and where they were used, they fit Theoden very well. “Theoden,” by the way, means “prince” with the implication of one with a fate.* Now is that fate a wyrd or “fated to be a prince?” Again, the sense is ambiguous.

*According to some sources. Linguists seem to be arguing over that.

Book Review: The Forager’s Calendar

Wright, John. The Forager’s Calendar: A Seasonal Guide to Nature’s Wild Harvest. (London: profile Books, 2020)

I first saw the book in the gift shop at Dawick Gardens. However, the weight deterred me, since over-weight charges on the airlines have become considerable. Once I got home, I tracked the book down again and ordered a gently used copy. It is a month-by-month guide to things in England and Scotland that you can safely forage and eat, as well as a quick reference for major rules about where and when to forage, laws that pertain to gathering edibles, and what will kill or at least greatly sicken you. (Mushrooms have a LOT of ways to do you in, or at least make you lose weight quickly. Ahem. And so do wild carrots.)

The book is small enough to carry around in a bag, but it is heavy because of the illustrations. I would make color copies (especially if you are looking at fungi) and take those instead, if weight and bulk were a consideration.

Wright begins with useful tools for the forager, and an overview of the laws in England, Scotland, and Wales about foraging for wild plants, including mushrooms. The laws vary depending on if the property is on public land, private land, the seashore, or the public right-of-way. As you would expect, if you are on private land without permission, you can get in trouble. Foraging in some parks is also a no-no (just like the US, although some US parks and wildlife refuges allow mushrooming at certain times and in certain parts of the park.) Having separate bags and baskets for each kind of plant or mushroom is also important. One bad fungus in with a bunch of quite edible ones will ruin your day (or the rest of your [brief] life.)

The book starts in January and works around the year. It has lots of illustrations, anecdotes, suggestions for identifying plants, and a few recipes. The first page of each chapter has a list of “things to get now” and “things carrying over from earlier months.” As you would imagine, the lists get longer and longer as winter becomes summer. If a plant or mushroom is better at one point than earlier or later, Wright makes a note of that.

The last chapter has all the poisonous plants in it. They range from “rapid weight-loss will result” to “scary but most people recover. Most . . .” to “is your will up to date? Your estate will want to know.” For readers outside of Britain, this section is more of general interest, although any “wild carrot” or really colorful mushroom is probably best to avoid.

As a writer, this is great for using as a reference for pre-modern or early-modern characters who will be living off the land, or who need to know that certain things should be avoided at certain times. (Or who intend to bump off or scare another character.) Yes, it is Anglo-centric, but it gives a starting place and a way of looking at the world.

I have foraged on right-of-ways and in parks and refuges all over the US, at least for berries. Mulberries and gooseberries are easy to identify and safe to nosh. Wild strawberries have also been nibbled, although not as often (lots of work for not much flavor). I don’t do mushrooms, aside from puffballs, and those I get by asking the land-owner (often home-owner) for permission. Ditto dandelions. I don’t go digging for other things, even when I have identified them, because US and state rules are different and too varied. (I also avoid things that I know have been sprayed for or with something.)

This is a fun book. The author knows what he is doing, and is quite up front about “this tastes great,” “this will keep you from starving,” and “some people like this. I don’t know why.” And “add this to vodka to make a great gin. Here’s a cocktail to try.”

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the author or the publisher.