Category Archives: history

The Invisible Horse

I went to a marvellous event the other day. A “Pop Up Curiosity Shop” run by Exeter, Bristol, and Bath Universities. Various research projects were reporting on their progress despite being only part way through. I learned about the human spine, ecclesiastical graffiti, worms in space, and a whole bunch of other very interesting stuff. The thing with research is that when the starry eyed explorers set off to find whatever it is they have set their scientific sights on, there is always a distinct possibility that they will find something else entirely.

Stories of bold knights and their gallant chargers, talking or otherwise, abound. I’ve told a few. The archetype of the knight couldn’t exist without his equine support. Artists paint palfreys gently cropping the turf whilst their armour clad master rests beneath a tree and writers pour out prose praising the noble beasts as they make the ground shake, thundering towards each other in the lists or hurtling at an enemy on the battlefield.

Yes, the Warhorse, tall as a house*, armoured like his rider, forming the formidable ranks of the Heavy Cavalry, the decisive military tool of so many battles. Each hoof the size of a dinner plate. The undisputed lynchpin of pre-musket strategy. Get enough noble knights on their massive chargers and the war was yours.


The stated purpose of one of the groups at the event was to find the true nature of the middle ages’ most famous animal, but they seem to have discovered that it is, in fact, as much of a mythical beast as it’s single horned cousin.

No bones of super sized stallions exist. No outsize shoes litter the battlefields. Contemporary artwork places Norman cavalry on creatures nearer to ponies. The saddles are all fairly slim, and no surviving armour was made for anything bigger than a fairly average horse. The weaponry of the knights does not include the extended blades and handles that would have been necessary to do any damage from such a great height.

Possibly the most famous phrase in archaeology (after “It was probably ritual”) is “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. In this case though, they not only found no evidence for the heavy horses of popular imagination, but significant evidence for much smaller, lighter, more manoeuvrable, mounts.

Authors of historical battle fiction who claim to have done their research are going to be upset. Likewise numerous historians and historical re-enactors. Personally I am quite pleased. It’s not everyday that you get given a new fantastical, story book creature that everybody already knows. The Warhorse is now entering the stables next to the Winged Horse, the Unicorn and the Kelpie, where they can all enjoy a nice chat together.
Thank you scientific research, I accept your gift with glee!

* A single story medieval house.


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Look How Far We’ve Come

One of the side effects of researching old folk tales is one can’t help but develop an awareness of history. Whilst the history that is taught in education and sighed over in costume dramas is mostly from a fairly well to do perspective, folktales carry memories of the history experienced by the less fortunate. Stories like Hansel and Gretel remind us the nobility of the Middle Ages kept the agricultural peasantry on such barely subsistence wages, that a bad harvest or a passing pestilence could leave parents choosing which children to feed and which to abandon to their fate. Those without patronage, employment or pension were so hard pressed for food that, in difficult times, the madness of hunger actually did drive some to eat human flesh. Maybe alongside the famous Henry Tudor wife tally of “Divorced, Beheaded, Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived!” We should learn the cost of medieval royalty’s lifestyle: “Starving, Abandoned, Died. Starving, Abandoned, Cannibalised.”

Uncomfortable as these reminders are, they are easy to pass by as the product of extremis, circumstances way beyond anything we are likely to encounter ourselves. However, now and then I come across a tale that can still shock me, it’s horrors not being so long ago or far away, and presented with such everyday banality that it sends shivers down my spine.

My next virtual online zoom performance is going to be about cats. A fairly safe topic one might have thought, relatively low in the jeopardy stakes with a minimal body count mostly tallied in rodents. I was not prepared for “The Lazy Cat”, a purportedly “humorous” tale from Hungary. It starts with the sentence “A lad married a rich and lazy maid and solemnly promised he would never beat her”. On the surface this may seem like a good thing but there are two warning signs in this one statement. Firstly, in folk tales of this type the opening sentence tends to be a pretty good guide to the main topic of the story: this is going to be a story about domestic violence. Secondly, the simple fact that his oath is worth mentioning means the cultural norm for the society was that husbands beat their wives. In case you are in any doubt about that, the story continues: the wife does no work around the house, spending her days in idle gossip “And still he kept his word and never raised his hand against her.” Yes, we are seriously being asked to give him points simply for not being a thug.

The husband solves the conundrum of how to discipline his unruly spouse without breaking his vow by turning to the cat. He orders the poor feline to do all the housework and have his meal ready for when he gets back under threat of a whipping. When he returns and puss has unsurprisingly failed to lift a paw he ties the cat to his wife’s back, whips the cat and the cat claws the wife. After a couple of days of this the wife starts to do the cat’s chores and all is well.

The shocking realisation that in an anecdote from not that long ago we are being invited to consider violence by proxy a clever work around; that the animal cruelty is almost casual; and the “joke” hinges on the foolish act of forsaking direct violence; shows that things have improved over the years. Our reaction to it gives us perspective. It’s a bit like reaching a hill top on a long walk. There is still a long way to go before we reach true equality between the sexes (women are still payed less than men for the same job despite legislation that says otherwise, just as one indisputable example), but just turn around, face back along the rocky path a moment and look how far we’ve come.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

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Time is a strange thing. As a storyteller I live in a world where “recent” means about two hundred years ago and “really old” refers to a time before the the Roman Empire was even a twinkle in Romulus and Remus’ eyes. Yet here I am with my mind in the future, writing a Folk Tales Corner for you to read in August while it’s early July. It gets worse. Over the next month I have to learn the Viking saga “Bosi and Herraud” to tell in the authentically historical reconstruction of a Dark Age Long House at the Ancient Technology Centre in Dorset. During the same period of (calendar) time I will also be researching and learning some (probably) more recent tales featuring tea for the Gyllyngdune Tea Festival in Cornwall. I’ve not come across a single folk tale with tea as it’s theme in the past. It could be an interesting search.


Meanwhile, with my salesman’s hat on, I am trying to book my autumn gigs and sell the set of subterranean adventures I have called “Underworld Journeys”. This includes myths from as far back as the earliest writings of the Sumarians (who invented writing alongside agriculture and cities about five thousand years ago), through Iron age to Dark age Celtic and Norse legends up to the frighteningly modern verses of Edgar Allen Poe. All of which will have to be committed to my gently boggling memory during September while I simultaneously begin my PR assault on the arts centres who will be doing their bookings for January to April around then. If you see Doctor Who tell him I’d like to borrow the Tardis.


It is fun though, being able to sit with one’s nose in a book for an afternoon and call it work.

It’s good for us too. As I’m sure I have mentioned, the stories are not only full of good advice and useful information but are in themselves cultural artefacts. Every time you read a story you are improving yourself, whether it’s Homer’s Illiad* or Jack the Giant Killer.


So if you are inclined to take my advice from last month but don’t already have a story inside you waiting to get out, where do you start? Well, I suggest that you tuck a copy of “Dark Tales From The Woods” by Daniel Morden in to your holiday luggage. I was lucky enough to be given mine for Christmas and what an excellent present it has proved to be. If you like books as things of beauty in their own right then “Dark Tales” is most definitely the book for you. Care has been taken with everything between the hard covers: the paper stock feels earthy and real, the typeface is enticing and easy on the eye, the illustrations add just the right level of atmosphere. Even the dust jacket is delightful, the whole is a lovely thing to hold. Then you start reading. Mr. Morden being a storyteller as well as an author the stories are smoothly re-told, with equal measures of respect for their antiquity and touches of originality, blended with natural humour and an economic but fluid use of language.


Although the stories contained in “Dark Tales” were only collected fairly recently, they began their life and are set in that misty storyteller’s territory of “long, long ago”. I do like it there. As with many people, I find I can get lost in a good story and time, in more ways than one, just slips away. It’s funny stuff, time.


…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.


*If you haven’t read the Illiad it’s a really old all action romp and far better than the film.

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For England and St. George!

I’ve been telling the tale of St. George for nearly twenty years now, it’s a rollicking tale! I always give George a nice big dragon to fight (and like any storyteller, it keeps getting bigger) partly because that is half the story and partly because, well, George makes such a meal of it. Despite the full complement of helpful horse and magic sword it takes him three goes, a shattered lance, melted armour and a lot of hiding in an orange tree to finish off the scaly adversary. Still, persevering in the face of overwhelming odds is the English way and the English way is what St George is all about isn’t it?

Dragon Hill in the Vale of White Horse bears witness to this most English of battles where the spilt dragon’s blood has rendered a patch of ground barren to this day. Except that a search through the archives for a more detailed re-counting of the legend fairly quickly shows this to be a recent transplant, with the medieval version set amongst the sands of Egypt. Here he saves the duskily beautiful Princess Sabia from a crispy death as reptilian appeasement and we hope, briefly, for an ending in interracial marriage and harmony. Unfortunately, George is subject to some political intrigue and religious persecution at the hands of Kings Ptolemy of Egypt, Almidor of Morocco and an unnamed King of Persia. Unjustly imprisoned for seven years he fights off two lions, escapes, kills a giant and a wizard, is reunited with Sabia and takes her back to England for a right royal wedding. Eventually George returns with a huge army to take his revenge on all three of his oppressors, conquering all of north Africa and the middle east in the process, whereupon the people proclaim him king and convert, on mass, to Christianity.

So the action may not take place in England but at least the hero is the noble son of the Lord of Coventry… unless one reads the story of Sir Bevois (Pronounced Bevis) of (South) Hampton. Apart from a few variations in the preamble and the order of events, the two tales are almost identical. A little further digging reveals that both versions came back from the middle east in the mouths of crusaders: not folk tales at all but a stirring call to action, carefully casting the Muslims as the bad guys, and it was during the creation of this propaganda that George received a birth certificate and passport for a country he never, in reality, set foot in.

Shovelling even deeper reveals that the original Saint George was a soldier in the Roman army who, after speaking out against the emperor’s persecution of the Christians, was martyred (killed very unpleasantly) for his beliefs. For those who are familiar with mummer’s plays in which St George fights with a Turkish Knight, there is a final twist in that George’s birthplace, Cappadocia, was in Turkey making him a Turkish Knight himself.

With the current moves to reinvigorate him with his own Bank Holiday, we can but wonder what a man who died turning the other cheek might think of the revisions that have been made to his biography for political reasons. What would the soldier who was killed for standing up to an unjust government think of the plans to take away the peoples ancient May Day celebrations?
We will never know, but what I do know is that I shall probably still be telling of his fictitious fight with a dragon in some form or another, for another twenty years or more because, after all is said and done, it is a cracking story!

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

The Travelling Talesman

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101 uses for a dead folk tale

So there’s a question, what are different folk tales for, what is their purpose, to what uses are they put….?

Obviously you’ve got the entertainment factor, that’s a basic starting point; often people expect to find morals in the story, personal lessons; many are teaching tales where skills and knowledge are passed on, the correct way to prepare land, grow and harvest a crop or other such practical matters. Then there are the tales like December’s The Black Bull of Norroway, where there are a multiplicity of lessons and meanings, of personal, practical, cultural and spiritual essence, layered across each other like a trifle. With a lot of tales we can dig so deep it becomes anthropological archaeology.

Our example this month is another worldwide tale type with a purpose that nowadays appears obsolete to the casual eye. This is the tale which answers a simple question: Why The Sea is Salt*.

The chief protagonist procures a magical hand mill, or flour grinder, with which they are able to grind out anything and make themself rich and prosperous. Envy being what it is, the mill generally changes hands (usually through theft and, for moral or comic effect, a couple of times) until it eventually ends up on a ship in the possession of someone who has only partly understood it’s magic, namely they know the charm to start it but, like the sorcerers apprentice, not how to make it stop.   They set the mill turning to grind out that valuable commodity salt and sure enough it fills the ship, which consequently sinks while the would-be millionaire vainly tries to undo the spell.   So both ship and story come to rest, with the mill deep at the bottom of the ocean still grinding out salt to this day.

Although this story most often comes to us dressed in medieval clothing, it actually dates from the Iron Age and it’s special gift is the illumination of an essential transition for man. Prior to this a large part of everyone’s time would need to be taken up with grinding grain, estimates say up to 10 hours a day, using a saddle quern, where wheat is ground by rubbing one stone back and forth over another stone which holds the grain. Then someone invented the all mod-cons wonder of the labour-saving (drum roll) Rotary Quern! (Fanfare).

Made from two circular pieces of particular igneous rocks such as millstone grit, one atop the other, the lower stone has a slope curving down from a central spindle and the upper stone is carved so that, by the central hole where the grain is fed in, there is space beneath it for a grain of wheat but as the grain rolls down towards the edge the gap becomes progressively narrower until only flower can pass out. When correctly aligned the upper stone, which can be a lot heavier than the handstone of a saddle quern, floats on the material being ground and rotates fairly easily. Since the rotary action means you are not changing direction all the time and the grinding surface is considerably larger, it is much more efficient.

The rotary quern was the first domestic labour saving mechanical device, you could think of it as the great grandaddy of the microwave, blender, breadmaker or dishwasher. This high status, skilfully crafted, wonder of precision engineering reduced the daily grind (quite literally), freeing up your time to pursue other enriching activities or, rather than getting ground down, you could, if you don’t mind putting your nose to the grindstone, grind for others – for a fee! Either way, possession of a rotary quern, or mill, could clearly make you wealthy, therefore it must be magical because it grinds out riches: to be sure, you can grind out gold with it.


Archeology wonderfully illustrates the technological and economic significance of this great leap forward, but it is the folk tale that gives us a more personal understanding of the social and emotional impact of such awesome inventions. The gift is a connection to our ancestral roots, looking back around two and a half thousand years, and a reflection of how maybe we aren’t so very different today.


…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

The Travelling Talesman

* My favourite version of this story to date is from Welsh legends and folk-tales Retold by Gwyn Jones, which comes variously with and without illustrations but either way Gwyn’s fluid prose and nicely turned similes are very well worth the time.


Welsh legends and folk-tales

Puffin Books


ISBN-13:9780140310979, 978-0140310979

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