I subscribe to British Archaeology, a bi-monthly magazine stuffed with dug-up-in-Britain wonders, covering everything from how to excavate an abandoned Ford Transit Van to discovery of tools created half a million years ago. The thrill factor is variable (I often read it in bed and nod out over the articles). But a few months ago I read a review of a scholarly text about textile production in the early middle ages that knocked my socks off: Cloth and Clothing in Early Anglo-Saxon England, AD 450-700, by Penelope Walton Rogers (CBA, 2007).
I don’t normally continue to research once I’ve begun the the work of actually committing fiction (facts, until they’re fully assimilated, tend to sit in great undigested lumps in my imaginative path) but I had to have this book. It took a week or so to arrive and then I promptly devoured it. It not only derailed my imaginative process, it blew the whole thing off its tracks.
The book lays out in detail what Angles and Saxons wore, and how women made it, and how fashions and means of production changed geographically and chronologically. It demonstrates that women must have devoted at least 65% of their time on textile production. Textile production, therefore, more than child care, more than food production, was their major concern. It was a critical task.
We’ve all read those awful historical novels where the feisty heroine flings her embroidery down and flees the castle to ride her spirited mare through the forest. No. Wouldn’t happen. Couldn’t happen. Sticking with their weaving and sewing (and sowing, and harvesting and retting and scutching and beating and spinning and dyeing and weaving and…) wasn’t just some boring gendered task designed to keep women occupied, it was vital to survival and quality of life. But if a woman is spending two thirds of her waking life working on textile production, how do I make her life exciting and particular? (More on this, oh much more, another time.)
The first thing I’ve had to do is reimagine–totally reimagine–the social networks of a small holding, a settlement, a royal court. A lot of cloth production involves cooperative behaviour; a lot involves two-person teams. Immediately, it became clear to me that the notion of ‘best friend’ would be a deeper, more serious, and quite possibly formalised relationship–perhaps even political at the upper end of the food chain. So then I imagined what that relationship might look like, and then I started hunting for an Old English (in my fiction I’m currently using the term ‘Anglisc’ but this may change) word to describe that relationship. And the only thing I could find was ‘gemæcca’, which according to Old English Made Easy means ‘mate, equal, one of a pair, comrade, companion’ and ‘husband or wife’. It’s proving to be a complicated but interesting concept.