Saturday, 19 March 2016

The Hungry Gap and The Sterkarm Tryst

I was having a bit of a discussion with my editor, Matrice, who is working on A Sterkarm Tryst.

She wanted to know what season of the year the book was set in, because my descriptions confused her. Sometimes she thought it sounded early in the year, and sometimes it sounded late.

It's set in late summer, or early autumn, I said. Crops are almost ready for harvest but not quite yet. Some leaves are starting to turn, but there are still late flowers. Some berries are ripe, many still unripe.

This season was always a good time to fit in a bit of swift aggro. The fiercely cold winters of the 16th Century hadn't set in yet, and if you acted quickly, you could clobber your opponents during 'the hungry gap.' And perhaps be a little less hungry yourself.

The Hungry Gap fell around July or August and reminds us how seasonal life was in the past, and how much we've lost touch with that seasonality.

The harvest was gathered in roughly around the end of August and into September. Hay was made and grain was cut, threshed, stored. Fruit, nuts and mushrooms were gathered and stored. Throughout the summer, cows had been milked and the milk turned into butter and cheese for storing. Eggs were preserved.

It was expensive to keep animals alive through the winter - you had to shelter them and feed them. So most unwanted animals were sold earlier in the year, when they were young and, of the rest, only the best were kept alive. The rest were slaughtered around mid-October, and the meat smoked, salted or dried.

All the hard work was celebrated with a party - and most other big parties, such as weddings, were also held at this time of the year, because there was plenty of fresh food. You had a blow-out at Christmas, of course, to help everybody get through that cold, dark part of the year. And then you carefully tended what you had in store to get you through the rest of the year until the next harvest.
 God bless the master of this house,
The mistress also.
And all the little childer that round the table goo -
God bless the house, the barn, the byre
The dog outside the door.
God bless what'er you have in store -
And give you ten times more!
The Soul-Cake Carol.

Smailholm Tower, wikipedia - click for credit
Households like the Bedesdale Tower in the Sterkarm books wouldn't have been small. 'Family' at the time was often understood to include servants as well as blood relatives, and the family living at the tower would have included men at arms, many maids, cattle men, kennel men, stable boys and so on. Most of them would have expected to be fed from the tower's stores as part of their wages. That's why the tower's yard is crowded with storehouses, the upper storeys of which serve as dormitories.

Every large farmhouse would have needed to feed a crowd every day, too. Imagine being the women who had to oversee those stores and manage them. That's why, from the Viking Age onwards, the sign of a woman in charge of a household was a large bunch of keys hanging at her waist - to keep those stores locked up!

The stores dwindled day by day with every meal served. That Christmas feast had to be planned. As the year turned into spring, the level of grain in the bins dropped. The cheeses and blocks of butter were eaten up. The barrels of salted meat and fish were emptied. The flitches of bacon were carved up.

By the time July was reached, there were far more empty barrels than full and people were heartily sick of dried, salted and smoked food - but nothing in the fields or hedges or woods was yet ripe.

People ate the first hawthorn leaves, calling them 'bread and cheese.' The harvest of fresh food must have been looked forward to so keenly.

Today, when we can nip out to the supermarket and buy fresh food regardless of the time of year, and keep bags of frozen (and almost fresh) food in our home-freezers, we have forgotten 'the hungry gap.' Imagine standing in a summer field - wheat or oats tall and waving, hedgerows thick with flowers and leaves, little garden brimming with greenery - and nothing ready to eat.

If the weather was poor and held back the harvest, then the wait was longer - and the food in store still went on dwindling, day by day. The gap in those years was wider and hungrier.

If you struck at your enemy at this time of year, burned and trampled the crops standing in their fields - burned or stole what they had left in store - burned their houses - then you ensured that they had a miserable, hungry winter ahead of them. 16th Century winters weren't like ours have been of late. At that time, the Thames was expected to freeze solid every year - and the Sterkarms live much further north, on the Scottish borders.
Matrice was not altogether convinced by my talk of the hungry gap - she's a good editor and it's her job to question. She said that her Irish ancestors didn't have a hungry gap because they planted relays of potatoes and other vegetables from early in the year, to take them through summer.

 Yes, but the Sterkarms would never have seen a potato or heard of one. The historical parts of the books are set, roughly, about 1520. This is something like 200 years before potatos became a staple crop in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.

And although improvements in technology and agriculture were being made, the developments that really changed things came later. The north country reivers didn't go in much for arable farming - they were, as their ancestors had been for centuries, practicers of 'transhumance.'  That is, they were cattle-farmers who moved their animals between sheltered lowland pastures and higher meadows for summer grazing.

They grew oats for grain, because it was the only cereal that grew at all well so far north, and such fruit and vegetables as they had would have been much closer to the wild variety - or actually were the wild variety, gathered from woods, moors and hedgerows.

Some of my Scottish friends have doubted this since, for them, the 'Kingdom of Fife' is 'the UK's bread-basket' with its wide and beautiful fields of wheat. But Fife only became so productive of wheat after the agricultural revolution of the mid to late 1700s, when more intensive and scientific methods of farming were introduced, together with the development of hardier and/or more productive strains of wheat.
wikimedia: wild strawberry - click for credit

For instance, I have strawberries in my garden that ripen early in the
summer, and some that ripen in the autumn - but these are varieties that have been bred by intensive modern agriculture. The Sterkarms' strawberries would have been wild ones. They flower, fruit - and that's your lot until next year. Wild strawberries are doing it for themselves, not for us.

It reminds me of my beautiful dog-rose, which has a brief burst of flowers every year. They last about three weeks and then - no matter how much I dead-head - they're gone. Everything about life in the past must have had the same aching transience - Come and kiss me, Sweet and Twenty, Youth's a thing will not endure!

Their warm, light summers were brief and followed by a long, dark and grindingly cold winter, in dwellings which were hard to keep warm. How they must have longed, even more than us, for spring and summer, and how they must have tried to enjoy every warm day - every snowdrop, every violet, every hedge rose.
Wild rose, wikipedia - click for credit

For the Sterkarms, after the relief and joy of harvest, would have come October, November, December, January, February... with the weather becoming more flesh-nippingly cold all the time.

Then April, May - things are beginning to leaf and flower, but there's still nothing much you can eat

Then June, July - it's warmer and lighter, but still nothing's ripe - and your stores are running very, very low. August must have been torture! Everything visibly ripening but still not quite there.

And this was in a good year. In the modern West, we don't know how lucky we are.


Sue Bursztynski said...

And I bet they would have LOVED today's conveniences! ;-) Did you ever read Poul Anderson's SF novel The High Crusade? In it, a bunch of mediaeval villagers take over an alien spaceship that has landed in their village, deciding to fly to the Crusades. They end up in outer space when the alien pilot tricks them, but it doesn't take them long to figure out what to do, because most of it is pushing buttons. After their complex lives, future technology is nothing!

Thanks for the fascinating post. We do read quite a lot about the mediaeval year, but you make some good points that go beyond the usual.

Susan Price said...

Thank you! - And I agree, the Sterkarms would have loved all the easy conveniences. It's us, with our comfortable lives, who bemoan the loss of 'the old ways.' Sure, intensive agriculture and labour-saving machines are going to destroy life as we know it - but am going to do my laundry as my grandmother did, with copper, maiden tub and mangle? I am not!

madwippitt said...

Andrea is going to have a tough time I think ... :-)

Nick Green said...

Lovely post as ever. Something puzzles me though. What about all the other stuff there is to eat in summer? Rivers swarming with fish? Rabbits popping out of every hole? Roe deer wandering all over? I still find it hard to believe that anyone could have gone hungry in a good summer, so long as they could fish and trap and shoot a bow.

Susan Price said...

It's true, Nick - those who could did, indeed, eat a lot of wild game. (The hungry gap, though, is why there were very few vegetarians in northern climes until this century.) I describe the Sterkarms hunting for deer. They would have snared rabbits and hunted them with dogs, and guddled for trout.

I'm not sure how the law stood in Scotland - but further south the Normans introduced the laws which forbade the peasantry to hunt for game. These vicious laws lasted 800 years, into the 19th Century. You could be hung for taking a hare or snaring a rabbit.

People still hunted, of course - my father told me methods of catching pheasants, passed down from my grandfathers - and about 'lamping'. But our caring, sharing gentry preferred to keep the game to themselves while the poor went hungry.

Nick Green said...

Indeed. 'We are all in this together!' was a popular saying among the Normans...

Nicky said...

Great post as always. As I feed a mere six full sized, active men daily I have nothing but respect for those who had to husband ( or shouldn't that be wife) the stores to last for months: I shop daily.

Polly said...

Brilliant post as ever.
I knew about the 'hunger months'. I once heard a fascinating short story on radio,set in an earlier century, all about the constant battle to keep stored food in good condition, fighting against conditions that might let it go mouldy, or rats, or insects ruining the precious supplies.
I do some 'living history' - as a newbie I learnt it's not ok to be seen eating apples in early summer !
So looking forward to the next Sterkarm book :-)

Susan Price said...

Thank you, Polly! Yes, they had to be in the stores, checking apples and turning cheeses, all the time.
Your point about eating apples just whenever you please made me smile. We historical writers have a lot to thank recreation societies for - their research is impressive, and then they test it all practically, and work out how it was really done! (As opposed to what the books say.)

And Nick - you made me laugh, as ever.

Joan Lennon said...

"The hunger gap" - just the words send a shiver down your spine!

slam2011 said...

Once completely lost faith in a fantasy-Medieval world where the hero sauntered to a midwinter fair and bought a cherry pie. I could stretch a point - maybe they used dried cherries? - but then, how did these simple peasants lay hands on sugar? I was so concerned with the dynamics of rehydrating cherries and using honey as a sweetener I literally lost the plot.

Susan Price said...

That's a great comment, slam2011 - it made me twitch guiltily as I'm sure I've probably made such mistakes without realising it. But I do try hard not to - for one thing, I find all the differences between how we live and 'they' lived so fascinating. I have done ever since I was introduced to the concept of 'history' when I was about seven. I went home and said to my dad, 'Were there really people who lived in caves and had to make everything out of stone and wood?' He assured me that there had been such a time and I was prepared to believe him.

After that, I was hooked.

And you're right. 'Medieval' covers a few hundred years, but only at the end of that time was sugar becoming anything but an exotic expensive spice for the very rich. I suppose a pie could have been made, as you say, with dried cherries, in very plain short pastry: but it would still have been, I think, a pretty expensive treat.

My latest book, The Drover's Dogs is set in the 19th Century, and in it I have two boys buy a couple of small cakes from a market stall. I cudgelled my brains considerably about how much those cakes would cost! - And I have one of the boys comment that he and his friend 'were out to live the high life.'

slam2011 said...

Now I feel ashamed of my historical nitpicking, which I know is not impartial or consistent. If a fictional work beguiles me enough in other ways I'll turn a blind eye to the sort of gaffes I'd sneer at elsewhere. Who'd be an author, eh?

Cake prices:There's a saying about about greedy people who "want their cake and ha'penny". Not dated, unfortunately, but a report in The Times for 9 Oct 1826 describes a woman in Liverpool fined 15/- for selling " a halfpenny cake" to a child on Sunday.

Susan Price said...

Why feel ashamed? If you write fiction set in the past it's part of your job to try and make that past 'real' - or at least, as you say, to make your tale so beguiling that even the informed are willing to let a few mistakes pass so they can go on reading.

Trying to beguile the readers and having them try to catch you out, is all part of the game and the fun. If I drop a real clanger,like having someone wear rubber boots to keep their feet dry before rubber was available in boot form, then I can't complain if readers point their fingers and hoot.

Fifteen bob for selling a half-penny cake! Those Sabbath Day Observation Laws were an outrage. I didn't know that clip - thank you, fascinating! - but my research around the subject made me price my cakes at about that. Sandy and Calum in my story think it's expensive, but they are determined on cake.

slam2011 said...

I make it she was fined 560 times the value of the item sold. Wicked. And it was the Vicar wot done it, he collected the fine after information was placed with him by a sharp-eyed neighbour. The newspapers in 1826 were outraged too: "When will there be an end of tithing mint and anise?".

So now we know the popular flavours :)

(Reported first in the Liverpool Mercury but apparently happened in Ormskirk.)

Susan Price said...

Even more interesting!
Now this is why I dislike organised religion so much. I've nothing against people's own private belief in whatever god or gods they choose, though I don't share it - but when it gets turned into a huge State religion, with Bishops in the House of Lords passing laws, you get - at the mildest - things like the Sabbath Day Observation Laws, which were unjust from the day they were passed until the day they were repealed some time in the 1970s.

I knew Dickens hated them - he wrote an article quite rightly stating that they had no effect on the well-to-do, but made the one free day that working people had miserable. Good to know that he wasn't alone.

slam2011 said...

The newspaper stops short of naming and shaming the "worthy vicar", charitably assuming he was legally obliged to enforce the fine "however contrary it might be to his feelings as a minister of peace and goodwill". But you can glimpse the beginning of the power of the media, eh? That a vicar in darkest Ormskirk might find his actions towards a cottager coming under national scrutiny! Doorstepping and twitterstorms were a long way off, but still I bet he sweated a bit if he took 'The Thunderer'.