Medlars – a Rude Fruit for Winter

Detail of photo from the American Viscountess showing a medlar (link to the site below:)

Medlars were a very common and useful fruit particularly in the Medieval and Early Modern period. They come out in December but can only be eaten when they are rotten and ‘bletted’. They also store well. They, therefore, provide a source of winter sweetness when there were few other fresh sources available.

They are from the Rosaceae family which includes apples, pears, rosehips and quinces. The English called them ‘open arses’ or ‘dog’s arses’ or ‘granny’s arses’ because of the way they looked until the more polite French name the Medlar caught on.

Shakespeare uses both words and uses their sexual connotations as they were thought also to look like female genitalia. A medlar was also a name for a prostitute. So in Romeo and Juliet this speech by Mercutio to Romeo and their mates contains some very bawdy thoughts:

If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
Now will he sit under a medlar tree
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars when they laugh alone.
O, Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse and thou a poppering pear!

RJ 2.1.33

I think you can also see how good Shakespeare was at making his allusions available to all classes. For the sophisticated he begins with the reference to the French medlar and in case the groundlings are missing out throws in the ‘open-arse’ so they know what he is alluding to.

Medlars fell out of favour in the 18th and 19th Centuries. For more on medlars have a look at British Food history

Or watch this video from ‘the American Viscountess’ from which I extracted the picture of the medlar above.

Video on Medlars

February 7th 1596 ‘Crack Me This Nut’ Play performed by the Admiral’s Men at the Rose in Southwark

List of plays performed in February 1596 by the Admiral’s Men

In the absence of anything else particularly 7th Februaryish my original thoughts were to add a few items of archaeological news while pointing readers at the revised February 7th post from last year on Selene, the Moon Goddess.

But as I read the Mosaic column in the London Archaeologist Magazine and came across notice of the completion of the Henslowe-Alleyn Digitisation project I remembered that I have long used information from the Archive which gives a list of plays Henslowe’s Admiral’s Men performed in February 1596 at the Rose, in Southwark.

Just look at the list above! Talk about hard working – imagine an actor in what was essentially a small repertory company remembering this many plays? Also at the new Globe the guides tell you the Shakespearian Playhouses were used in the Summer. No! This was deep winter 23 performances in an outdoor theatre! 14 different plays, if I count correctly! Exclamation Mark Exclamation Mark.

I’m sure I will return to this archive but, for the moment it is an immense bit of news in the Shakespeare industry. Henslowe’s records were stored in a locked trunk for 260 years. Now they have been digitised and made available. Also elements that had been separated from the original archive have been brought back so the greatest archive of information on the Shakespearean theatre is now unified and available.

‘Crack me this nut!’ was performed 16 times, sold by Alleyn, and no one knows what it was about. It might relate to the sense of our phrase ‘a tough nut to crack.’ Here for more.

A badly photocopied page of the archive.

Other news from Mosaic includes:

This year marks the 300th Anniversary of Christopher Wren’s Death who rebuilt 50 or so Churches and St Pauls Cathedral after the destruction of the Great Fire of London.

An early 7th Century burial of a girl aged 10 -11 has been excavated in Eastry in Kent. DNA shows she was 33% of West African ancestry and 67% Continental Northern European.


several photographs of the full moon on 5th February by Natalie Tobart
Full Moon by Natalie Tobart

I have just revised the February 7th Almanac entry on Selene the Moon Goddess which has a wonderful set of Full Moon pictures by a friend of mine called Natalie Tobart which you can see above or by reading about Selene below:

New Irish Bank Holiday for St Bridget/Imbolc! February 6th

The celtic year shown as a circle
The Celtic Year

The Irish have created a brand new Bank Holiday for St Bridget. The first one is today Monday 6th February 2023 and it follows a public holiday given last year for Health Workers in March. The timing of the Bank Holiday is explained by the Irish Post:

St Brigid’s Day itself falls on February 1 each year but going forward the Imbolc/St Brigid’s Day public holiday will fall on the first Monday in February, unless February 1st falls on a Friday.

This means that Ireland now has a public holiday on the 4 Celtic festivals of Samain (Halloween), Imbolc (St Bridget’s Day), Beltane (May Day) and Lughnasa (Lammas Day). These festivals are quarter-days, which mean they fall half way between the Solstices and Equinoxes.

The Independent wrote that ‘then-Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, said last year‘ ….“This will be the first Irish public holiday named after a woman,”  He also is quoted as saying:

“It marks the half-way point between the winter solstice and the equinox, the beginning of spring and the Celtic New Year.”

Extra Bank Holidays in the UK?

There are occasional calls for a new Bank Holiday in the UK. It’s often a Conservative MP calling for a National Day for the British and they often suggest a date like Trafalgar Day 21st October (commemorating the great Naval battle in 1805 in which Nelson was fatally wounded). It has several virtues in their eyes. Firstly, it is a day that confirmed Britain’s mastery of the Seas and thus is an ideal day for celebrating patriotism. Secondly, it is the school half term, and gives a much needed day off between summer and Christmas. Thirdly, they can suggest the day should be taken from May Day Bank holiday which coincides with the International Worker’s Day, which is obviously ‘a bad thing’.

For example, the Portsmouth MP’s supported a call for Trafalgar Day here: . The report says: ‘there are currently no bank holidays in the UK which celebrate battles or war victories’.

This, I think, leaves the rest of us thinking ‘What planet do these people live on?’ Yes, Trafalgar Day would have been a great day for a Bank Holiday IF this were 1839, maybe even 1939. But in 2023 it is just not on any ordinary person’s radar. We don’t think so very much about the Napoleonic War or Nelson, or nor do we often sing ‘Heart of Oaks, are our Men’ any more. In short, it is a reminder how distant from the rest of us Conservative MPs are, and how progressive Ireland has become by contrast.

Recently, we have been given a few Royal Bank Holidays, last year for the Queen, this year for the King. The Trade Union Congress proposed the need for more bank holidays because we only have the usual eight annual bank holidays for workers in England and Wales. Scotland has nine or ten; the average for the EU is ‘12.3 bank holidays a year. Finland and Romania get 15, while workers in Japan have 16 public holidays in total’.

A recent radio programme ‘The Bottom Line’ compared Britain with France and revealed that Britain is now 20% less productive than France, (up by 10% since Brexit) and that we make up the deficit by working longer hours. It appears that the French high tax. high worker’s protection regime, means they have to find ways of getting more out of the same hours, while we can just hire and fire, and are happy to make people work in a more inefficient way.

Here is my recent post about St Bridget’s Day

300th Post & a London Almanack of the Past

The Illustrated London Almanack
The Illustrated London Almanack

This is the 300th Post on this my ‘new’ blog. I thought I would mark it by a reminder of what I am trying to do with it.

Over the years I have given a lot of walks on special occasions: Christmas, New Year, Halloween,Easter, May Day etc. as well as my regular ‘Myths, Legends of the Archaeological Origins of London Walk’. I have always had an interest in the Celtic Year, and when researching for my New Year’s Walks I came across Almanacks, and the more I found out about them the more I plundered them for content! I found that one third of books sold in London in the early modern period were Almanacks. That is how important they were.

So, I decided to create an ‘Almanack of the Year’ which changed title to an ‘Almanack of the Past’. In particular, what I am hoping to do is to create a London Almanack of the Past, where each day is remembered by an interesting and relevant post with a view to enlightening our understanding of London’s past.

Content is around these ideas and themes:

Seasons & Nature
Measurement of Time
Anniversaries of Famous & Important events in the past
Historical & Archaeological news
News of my Walks

What I am aiming for is a really focussed London version of an Almanack of the Past. I need a good entry for every day of the year, and I’m hoping to do that over a three year period, and then get it published.

If on January 12th the sun shine, it foreshows much wind.’

Abney Park cemetary in winter
Abney Park Cemetery in Winter photo by Harriet Salisbury

Or so says the Shepherd’s Almanac for 1676. Until the 12th Night we were forecasting the weather on the presumption that the weather on one of the 12 days will match the month of the same number. But having past Twelfth Night we have to find other methods of refining our forecasts.

Weather lore seems convinced of the undesirability of a warm January

‘January warm, the Lord have mercy’.

January commits the fault and May bears the blame.’

If Birds begin to Whistle in January, frosts to come’

‘When gnats swarm in January, the peasant become a beggar’

Most of the sayings about January quoted in Richard Inwards ‘Weather Lore’ first published in 1893, have this as their main focus. And the contrary also generally holds:

‘When oak trees bend with snow in January, good crops may be expected.’

‘A cold January, a feverish February, a dusty March, a weeping April , and a windy May presage a good year and gay.’

So much for long range forecasts, lets see how Weather Lore helps us use animals to determine whether it will rain today.

If animals crowd together, rain will follow.’

When dogs eat grass it will be rainy

When a cat sneezes, it is a sign of rain

‘If young horses do rub their backs against the ground, if is a sign of great drops of rain to follow.’

The only weather lore in my family was that a herd of cattle sitting down meant rain was on the way. (and of course ‘red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’ etc).

A survey by the Met Office in 2017 found that a surprisingly large number of people (75%) use ‘folklore’ to predict weather and 55% think they are useful methods of predictions. Here is a quote from their post.

  • Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight – used by 70% of UK adults – CORRECT
  • It can be too cold to snow – used by 49% – PROBABLY NOT IN THE UK
  • Cows lie down when it is about to rain – used by 44% – NOT CORRECT
  • Pine cones open up when good weather is coming – used by 26% CORRECT
  • If it rains on St Swithin’s day, it will rain on each of the next 40 days – used by 22% SINCE RECORDS BEGAN IN 1861, THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A RECORD OF 40 DRY OR 40 WET DAYS IN A ROW FOLLOWING ST SWITHIN’S DAY.

Met Office 2017 and BBC Newsround

January 11th – New Year’s Eve, Old Style & Carmentalia

1375, French Caesarian Birth, (most likely to have killed the mother or be performed when she was already dead or dying.)

When Britain reluctantly joined the Gregorian Calendar, in 1752, we lost 11 days, so if you add 11 to 31st December you get to New Year Old Style. You can do this with any date, and when celebrating feel you are being really authentic.

So, anything you did on the New Year’s Eve New Style (31st Dec). you can do today – except, of course, you need to convince your boss of the illegitimacy of the Gregorian Calendar, when you call in sick because of a hangover! In case you have forgotten what you should be doing on New Year’s Eve you can look here to look back on for New Year’s Eve, New Style.

Its a particularly ‘witchy’ evening because its the traditional Eve, not the new-fangled one. Reginald Scot in his ‘Discovery of Witchcraft’ first published in 1584 reports

a charm to find who has bewitched your cattle’. Put a pair of breeches upon the cow’s head, and beat her out of the pasture with a good cudgel upon a Friday and she will run right to the witch’s door and strike it with her horns

Reginald Scott’s book is available on this web site and is a fascinating read.

When I first posted this post last year. I did not, to my shame, know the background to the book, assuming it ‘believed’ this nonsense that a cow could lead you to whoever bewitched it. On the contrary. Reginald Scot was trying to debunk the absurd claims for witchcraft and magic. His book tries to prove that witchcraft and magic were rejected both by reason and religion, and that manifestations of either were ‘wilful impostures or illusions due to mental disturbance in the observers’ .

Given the number of people who were executed as witches in the 16th and 17th Century it makes you realise that it was only part of the country that was convinced by the QAnon like conspiracy that there people in this world with diabolical intentions. Have a good look at the cover of this 17th Century edition of Member of Parliament Reginald Scot’s book to get an idea of his standpoint.


It is also Carmentalia, the festival for the Roman Goddess of prophecy and childbirth. She was a much loved Goddess in the Roman pantheon but little is known about her perhaps because she has no clear match in the Greek.

She has a long history in Roman history being said to be the mother of…. Well this may surprise you, she was the mother of Evander. And Evander is the founder of Pallantium, which was a City on the site of Rome that predated Rome!

Who knew that? (the people at Vindolanda Roman Fort know and they have a great page on Carmenta here. ) Carmenta had two sidekicks who were her sisters and attendants. Postvorta and Antevorta, They might be explained by Past and Future. (in fact, after and before) as part of her role in prophecy or the two figures might represent babies that are either born head or legs first. She also commanded one of the the fifteen flamen. These were priests of state sponsored religions. One of their jobs was to ensure no one came to the temple wearing anything of leather because leather was created from death, and not suitable for the Goddess of Childbirth.

Vindolanda make the point that 2% of births in the past are likely to have caused the death of the mother, and, because of a high mortality in the children, to keep a population stable a mother might have to have 5 children on average, giving her a 12% chance of death by giving birth.

Good reason to have a Goddess on the Mum’s side.

December 21 – Reflections on the Solstice

Mass Clock Steventon

The Sun is at its lowest at midday; the sun rises and sets at its most southerly position in the whole year. If it continues, life will be extinguished as the world has no light and no heat.

But on this day the Sun begins its rebirth. From this day on, it begins to rise further north each day, the Sun at noon is higher, its sets further north each day. so the arc the rising and settings make is larger, the days are longer; the Sun is getting hotter too.

Symbolically, solstice is an ending as well as a beginning; a turning point and a promise by whatever Deity or non-deity you go by that the cycle of the world will continue. It will turn, the wheel will turn. Warmth and growth will return. Buds already growing in the earth. They will break out and bring new growth soon.

Culturally, its a time to have a party before the weather gets really cold, its a time to evaluate your past life and begin, like the sun, a new and hopefully better cycle.

Note. so if the Sun is at its shortest and weakest why is not the coldest time of the year? That is because the earth and, particularly, the oceans retain the heat of the Sun, and so it is generally colder in January and February. The coldest day varies and can be from November to March, but more often falls in January, then February, then December, more rarely in November and March.

The Solstice and the East Pediment of the Parthenon

British Museum Shop, reproductions of Hestia and Selene’s Horse from the Parthenon Marbles

At the Summer Solstice, I took a group to the British Museum and, a few days later, to Stonehenge, and managed to ‘integrate’ the two into a solstice narrative. At the BM, over years of trying to explain the sculptures, I have been building in my mind an interpretation of the Pediment that gives, I hope, an original insight into the possible intentions of the sculptors. I don’t know how ‘true’ it is, but I do think it gives an insight into metaphor and symbolism in great works of art. Bear in mind that there is a lot of uncertainty about some of the attributions, and, that the male and female virtues that I am talking about are traditional ones, not necessarily how we would express it in the modern world.

Pediment Sculptures Photo by Nicole Baster on Unsplash

At the left of the above photography, you see the horses that take Helios chariot into the sky to bring up the sun to light the world every day. Most sun deities are male, and the Sun gives light and life to the world, without it this earth is an inert block of ice cold stone. The next statue is casually laying back and looking fit, relaxed and not looking as if he is in that position because of the impossible triangular Pediment space he inhabits. He is the epitome of male strength, usually identified with Hercules but other people have other ideas and a young Dionysus is another suggestion. Whoever he is he represents male beauty and strength. So this end of the pediment represents the Sun and male virtues. This is the East Pediment of the Parthenon which is orientated to the rising sun, a little north of east.

Next are Demeter, the goddess of fertility, the goddess of the earth. Placed here to remind us that the Sun needs the Earth to create life and sustenance. It reminds us that the universe is not male, the male only works in conjunction with the female. Demeter is cuddling her daughter Persephone, the Goddess of Hades. She reminds us that life is a cycle of death and life. Plants die, turn into soil and create the conditions for future life.

Next is Hebe, daughter of Zeus and Hera, wife of Heracles (Hercules). She is the cupbearer to the Gods and gives them the ambrosia that keeps them forever young. She is the Goddess of Immortality, a reminder that the universe is eternal.

Next to Hebe is a void where there was the central statue of the east pediment depicting the Birth of Athena (according to Pausanias who wrote a guide in the 2nd Century BC to the Temple). Athena was born from the head of her father Zeus- a virgin birth. Athena therefore is, in some ways, the greatest of the Olympians, as she has the virtues of her female sex and the virtues of her father’s masculinity (and, dear Gods, hopefully not the massive ‘Me Too’ vices of her father). She is therefore, wise, nurturing, just, intuitive, decisive, a leader; an ideal combination of male and female.

Zeus (sitting) Hephastus to right (looking back with Axe)  Athena just visible above Zeus's head
Zeus (sitting) Hephastus to right (looking back with Axe) Athena just visible above Zeus’s head

I posted about the quite extraordinary story of the Birth of Athene earlier in the year and said

‘So Zeus eats Athena’s mum, Metis, who is pregnant with her. Sometime later he has a cracking headache. Hephaestus, the disabled artificer God hits Zeus over the head to clear the headache. Zeus gives birth to a fully formed Athena from the split in his head.’

Hestia, Dione, Aphrodite, Horse of Selene’s chariot

To Athene’s left is Hestia (Vesta for the Romans). Her name means “hearth, fireplace, altar” and she is the goddess of the domestic sphere, of the comforts of home, of a warm fire enjoyed by a loving family.

The next set are two beautifully draped women languidly leaning on each other, and these are Dione, with her daughter Aphrodite – the Goddess of Love. Dione is the daughter of Gaia and Uranus daughter of earth and sky. So, here, counterpoised to Hercules, are epitomes of women. Women of power, creation and love.

Finally, we have the exhausted horse of Selene. Her chariot takes the moon into the sky, positioned opposite to Helios and the Sun. Selene is the Moon goddess, and the Moon is beautiful, powerful as it gives us the tides and fundamental to the life of humans as she presides over the menstrual cycle. Compared to the movements of the Sun which any fool can work out, and which are relentless (symbolising Justice) the movements of the Moon are mysterious to most of us. So Selene is beautiful, powerful, creative and the Goddess of Intuition.

So, if you put it all together the East Pediment of the Parthenon shows that the world is a union of the male and the female, balanced between the two with Zeus and Athene in the middle, with Athene holding the main part because she, in her person, represents both the male and the female.

Of course we know that the Athenian society was a patriarchal one with women mostly kept in the domestic sphere. But here, at least, women were given an equal billing in the organisation of the Cosmos.

Sculptures from the east pediment of the Parthenon
Sculptures from the east pediment of the Parthenon

I must end by warning the reader that this is only my interpretation. I am not a scholar of Ancient Greece. I have come to my own conclusion based on spending a lot of time looking at the marbles, doing Solstice Virtual Tours, and mostly informed by the labels in the gallery, with of course, some reading including Mary Beard’s book entitled ‘Parthenon’ and the BM’s guide book. In particular, I have not incorporated into my ‘story’ the sculptures that were in the gaps that do not survive or only in fragments scattered throughout the Museum world. Mary Beard was cleverer than I, not reaching conclusions on the basis that we don’t know. But what we do know is that in the centre is Zeus and Athene and at the edges are the chariots of the Sun and the Moon. And so fitting to celebrate the Solstice.

This evening, 21 December 2022 I am doing my London Solstice Virtual Tour

December 10 Time for your Beetle & Wedge

The Beetle and Wedge Boathouse Restaurant, Moulsford, Oxfordshire
Photo by Stephanie Musk (Wikipedia)

No season to hedge
get béetle and wedge
Cleaue logs now all
for kitchen and hall.

Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie by Thomas Tusser

A beetle is a hammer and a wedge is used to split logs, so the first thing Tusser enjoins his readers to do for December is to stop digging and hedging and, instead, cut firewood.

He also suggests (if I read the Tudor writing correctly):

Sharpen dull working tooles

Leaue off tittle tattle and looke to thy cattle

and suggests:

Howse cow that is old, while winter doth hold.

But don’t forget:

Out once in a day, to drinke and to play.

He suggests covering strawberries with straw to protect them; Making sure your dried cod and ling don’t rot. Store the products of the Orchard in the attic. Bleed the horse and help the bees with ‘liquor and honie’.

‘Thus endeth Decembers abstract, agréeing with Decembers husbandrie.’

Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie by Thomas Tusser www.gutenbe

The Great British Smog December 5th 1952

Image from Facebook

It was on this day, in 2022, that I read, in the Guardian Newspaper, that life expectancy in the UK is reducing for the first time in 200 years, (and that in parts of the UK it has gone down by 10 years during the time of austerity) it is also the anniversary of the Great Smog of 1952.

I’m tempted to say don’t read any more of this and listen to the BBC’s excellent episode of ‘Inside Science: Killer Smog’ instead (or if you cannot use BBC Sounds, then go to the link to a Podcast at the bottom of the piece) Both pieces are based on the work of Dr. Gary Fuller of King’s College, London, detailed in his book ‘Air Pollution: The Invisible Killer’.

But, if you are still with me, what happened in 1952 changed Britain forever, but Fuller makes it clear it did not change Britain enough. What happened was that a terrible smog developed which lasted for a week, beginning on Dec 5th 1952. It killed probably 12,000 people and the hospitals, the emergency services, the mortuaries, the funeral parlours had more work to do than during the Blitz or the Cholera epidemics. Higher deaths than normal were still occurring as late as January 1953,

What changed Britain was that it finally persuaded people that coal-polluted air was a killer. People had debated it since the Victorian period, but did very little about it, some even believing smoke was good for you. After 1952, it was clear what a killer smog was. In 1956, a reluctant government introduced the Clean Air Act which established zones where only smokeless fuels could be used, and other measures including dispersal of polluting industries from the towns, and taller chimneys. This eventually cleared up the problem.

Job done, or so we all thought. Dr Gary Fuller tells us that we are incapable of dealing with more than one pollution threat at a time. In 1962, another smog, created by sulphur dioxide pollution, killed perhaps 1,000 people in London. And London still has a lot of air pollution, not just from traffic fumes, and it is still killing people.

Traffic pollution in London is being dealt with more aggressively, partly as a response to a brave coroner who found that a 9-year-old girl, Ella Kissi-Debrah, died because of air pollution. (girls-death-contributed-to-by-air-pollution-coroner-rules-in-landmark-case). The London Mayor is finally addressing this issue by, first creating and then expanding, the Ultra Low Emission Zone, to encompass all the London Boroughs. This has been very controversial as it has meant many people having to sell cars that do not meet the standard. It has an unfortunate byproduce which was that it enables the unpopular Conservative Party hanging on, by the skin of their teeth, to Boris Johnson’s old constituency. Results in other by-elections and opinion polls suggested they would lose it. Since, then, the Rishi Sunak Government has gone full petrol head, rowing back on Climate Change targets in various areas.

Another front against car pollution are the Local Traffic Neighbourhoods which were set up by local authorities using COVID-19 legislation to introduce traffic reduction methods by blocking off many neighbourhood roads from through traffic. These have been fought tooth and nail by its opponents, but generally has not affected local government elections.

But much less well known are other threats. For example, there is an increasing threat from trendy wood burning stoves which are very polluting, and yet their sales are soaring as people seek ways of mitigating soaring post-Ukraine war electricity prices. Agriculture is very polluting too, with fertiliser, and manure mixing with urban pollution to create dangerous particulates. It turns out that the most polluting time of the year is not Autumn, nor Winter but Spring because of this agricultural activity.

The 1952 episode was created by a temperature inversion which kept a blanket of cold damp air over London, stopping pollutants being dispersed and blown away. What made it such a killer was that Britain, in post-war austerity (this time introduced by the Labour Party) meant that we were exporting our top grade coals and allowing domestic users to use terrible stuff called ‘nutty slack’ which was sludge, dust, and fragments of very low grade and therefore very smokey coal. 18% of the coal used was domestic, but it contributed 60% to the emissions. The fog was yellow and sulphuric, transport was halted as no one could see beyond their hands in front of their faces, and people had to leave cinemas because no one could see the screens.

Following our second (Conservative induced) austerity our systems are in collapse, ambulances, hospitals, water supplies in a terrible condition. Our water companies are pumping sewage into our rivers and seas, a vast tide of Food banks and warm spaces trying to help people in their bitter choices between eating and heating, and the Government has closed down the infrastructures that helped us through the COVID-19 crisis.

We need to stop being short-sighted, not just ‘solving’ one problem before moving onto the next. We need a fundamental revision of our systems to allow us to enjoy the last two of the four freedoms so eloquently expressed by Roosevelt (the subject of this year’s BBC Reith Lectures):

  1. Freedom of speech
  2. Freedom of worship
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

Air Pollution Podcast click here:

First Published on December 5th 2022, Revised and republished on December 5th 2023.