The Winner of a “Sea Witch Voyages” Book

Richard Sutton has won his choice of a title from Helen Hollick’s “Sea Witch Voyages” series. Congrats to Richard Sutton!

Thanks to Helen Hollick for a brief, entertaining history of whiskey. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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The Water of Life…or Whisky to you and me

Helen Hollick author photoRelevant History welcomes Helen Hollick, who lives on a thirteen-acre farm in North Devon, England. Born in North-East London, Helen started writing pony stories as a teenager, moved onto science fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published in the UK with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the era of 1066, she was selected for publication by Sourcebooks Inc in the US, and became a USA Today best seller with Forever Queen. She also writes the “Sea Witch Voyages” series, nautical pirate-based fantasy adventures. As a supporter of Independent Authors she is Managing Editor for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews, and inaugurated the HNS Indie Award. To learn more about Helen’s books, check out her web site and blog, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


My forthcoming novel, the fifth ‘Sea Witch Voyage,’ On The Account, has my ex-pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne being offered an illegal sideline of smuggling…something. I was going to use brandy, but wanted something different. After some research I decided whisky would be the perfect solution.

So what is whiskey?
‘Whisky’ (‘whiskey’ in Ireland and US) comes from Gaelic Uisge beatha meaning ‘Water of Life.’ Uisge beatha became uisge, then ooshki and finally whisky.

WhiskeyModern whisky is made with barley: Scotch barley is dried over peat fires giving a distinct smoky taste, while Irish is dried in closed ovens where a lack of smoke makes a smoother taste. Scotch is usually distilled twice, Irish, three times. Both by today’s laws are required to mature for at least three years.

Irish whiskey was recorded in 1405, being distilled in the 12th century, the technique brought from the Mediterranean around 1000 A.D. Scotch whisky (just called ‘Scotch’ today) was made from malted barley with earliest records dating to 1494 in the Exchequer Rolls—the tax records of the day. (So I was quite safe for On The Account, set in 1719.)

In these early lists for Scotland it is recorded that ‘Eight bolls of malt’ went to ‘Friar John Cor at Lindores Abbey, Fife to make aqua vitae.’ This would have produced 1,500 bottles. A ‘boll’ is a measure of not more than six bushels—one bushel equivalent to 25.4 kilograms.

The quality and purity of the water used is an integral part of making a fine whisky today, but originally it was a way of using up rain-soaked barley. It is a highly potent spirit. By the 16th and 17th centuries the skill of production had greatly improved. Mostly, as with Friar John Cor, monks were responsible for spreading the distillation skills. Initially whisky was consumed for its medicinal uses, prescribed for good health, long life and the relief of colic and smallpox. Indeed, if I have a cold, hot water, honey, lemon and a dram (or two) often sees it off!

From Tudor times
The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII contributed to the spread of distilleries as many of the monks had to find alternative uses for their skills—whisky and the knowledge of how to produce it spread.

Dated to 1618 there is a reference to ‘uiskie’ in the funeral account of a Highland laird, and a letter to the Earl of Mar from 1622 mentions the spirit. Written by Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy, he reported that officers sent to Glenorchy had been given the best entertainment, for they ‘wantit not [for] wine nor aquavite.’

Aquavitae formed part of the rent paid for Highland farms and became an intrinsic part of life, appreciated during long winters, and providing an offered welcome to guests.

However, popularity attracted the attention of the Scottish Parliament. The first taxes were introduced in 1644, fixing the duty at 2/8d (13p) per pint, (the Scots pint being approximately one third of a gallon.) This, inevitably, resulted in a rise of distilling illicit whisky.

Part of the agreement of the Union between Scotland and England in 1707 was that English taxes would not be enforced north of the border, but in 1724 Parliament introduced a tax, which caused riots in Scotland, and distillers were driven further underground. Distillers and smugglers saw no reason to pay for making whisky, especially with such a lucrative and relatively easy market for selling it at a profit. These markets were taverns and big houses: agents were confiscating around 10,000 stills per annum. A lot of money was being made from non-collected taxes!

By 1780 there were eight legal distilleries and over four hundred illegal ones. Smugglers organised signalling systems to warn of approaching excise men. Smuggling whisky had become a standard practice for over 150 years. (Ideal for my pirate!) Every conceivable storage space was used to hide illicit liquor, including using coffins for transportation.

This eventually prompted the Duke of Gordon, on whose land some of the finest illicit whisky in Scotland was being distilled, to propose in the House of Lords that it should be made profitable to produce whisky legally. In 1823 the Excise Act eased the restrictions on licensed distilleries while making it harder for illegal stills to operate. It sanctioned the distilling of whisky in return for a licence fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon. Smuggling almost completely died out as it was no longer profitable. Many present-day distilleries occupy sites of original illicit stills.

American rye
In the Colonies, whisky (or whiskey) distilleries emerged with the rum business, an integral part of the slave trade. Dispatched by ship to Africa, rum was traded for slaves who were transported to the West Indies to grow sugar, to make molasses, to make more rum.

More whiskeyWhisky appeared occasionally in Colonial taverns before the American Revolution, but approximately 250,000 Scotch/Irish settlers migrated to America in the fifty years before Independence in 1776. When the British blockade of American ports cut off the molasses trade, rum distillers produced whisky instead. Rye became an all-American drink, being made in America from American grain, unlike imported beverages, which were heavily taxed. Frontier farmers who had an excess of rye distilled whisky from the surplus. A bushel made approximately three gallons and was worth more as liquor than as corn.

In 1789 Virginian farmers began making whisky with corn instead of rye, making it distinctive by aging it. They had discovered that charring the inside of oak barrels gave a better flavour and a darker colour. By 1792, western Virginia became the State of Kentucky and in the 19th century, Kentucky Corn Whiskey began to be called Bourbon.

I think Captain Acorne can smuggle whisky to a Virginian Tavern or two with historical accuracy, although not safely if excise men or the British Navy get to hear of it.



Sea Witch book coverA big thanks to Helen Hollick. She’ll give away a trade paperback copy of any currently released title in her “Sea Witch Voyages” series to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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Revolutionary Miami?

Paper Woman book coverRegulated for Murder book coverHow do you think my protagonists Sophie Barton and Michael Stoddard would respond if they were suddenly transported from the American Revolution to 21st-century Miami? Check out my tongue-in-cheek response in this fun interview of me on Raquel Reyes’s Miami blog.


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Nevada’s 20th-Century Mining Camps

Quinn Kayser-Cochran author photoRelevant History welcomes Quinn Kayser-Cochran, who writes historic fiction set in the western U.S. and travels extensively throughout the West researching events, characters, and settings. His series follows a PTSD-afflicted veteran of the Philippine War who is a company detective in the mining camps of early 20th Century Nevada. The first novel, Glorieta, centers on the 1862 Confederate invasion of the New Mexico Territory. To learn more about Quinn’s fiction, check out his web site and follow him on Twitter.


In the late 19th Century, the Silver State was in trouble. Existential trouble. Since its discovery in 1859, Nevada’s Comstock Lode had produced staggering volumes of silver and gold, but its output peaked in 1877 (that year producing bullion worth nearly $800M at 2015 prices [1]) and thereafter dropped steadily. Without mining, what was left?

Timber, ranching, etc., employed relatively few. Gambling was widespread but accounted for just a fraction of Nevada’s economy. Slowly, Nevada hollowed out. The 1880 Census lists 62,262 residents, but just 42,335 in 1890, with five counties accounting for most of this diminished total.[2] More populous states resented this wasteland’s two Senatorial votes, and newspaper editors back East began calling for the revocation of Nevada’s statehood.

Sporadic strikes raised the state’s hopes, but few—such as Edgemont and Delamar, both in the 1890s—amounted to much once their shallow mineral deposits pinched out. Then in 1903, James L. Butler (according to eminent Nevada historian Sally Zanjani, more probably Tom Fisherman, a Shoshone Indian and possibly the state’s finest prospector) discovered an enormous silver deposit at Tonopah.[3] The resulting boom rekindled interest in Nevada’s mines, and waves of people and money followed.

Latecomers fanned out across the desert. Over the next two decades, strike followed strike: Rhyolite, Manhattan, Wonder, and, grandest of all, Goldfield (where, again, credit for discovery goes to Tom Fisherman [4]). The 1910 U.S. Census of Nevada lists 81,875 residents—proof that the state recovered all of its lost population and then some.

Valley Mines, Lincoln CountyWhat I find fascinating about this era is how the Old West and the new often collided. Staid Mormon colonies and wide-open mining camps existed within a few miles of each other; some towns ran on wood stoves and springwater while others had electric lights, water lines, and telephones; and mine owners and stockbrokers grew rich, while miners—lacking what we recognize today as basic workplace rights and safeguards—were maimed and killed at alarming rates. Add conflicting political and philosophical outlooks, Indian and race-related issues, and major cataclysms such as the Spanish-American War and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and it is apparent how tumultuous this era must have been.

Technology, Philosophy & Politics
Tunnel Camp, Pershing CountyNevada’s complex geology and relative isolation spurred technological innovations: square-set timbering—a system of interlocking timbers that enabled miners to span and support enormous voids inside the earth; braided-metal cables; and the use of compressed air-driven machinery, among others. After 1900, gasoline engines found use powering small mine hoists, and automobiles slowly began to supplant both railroads and horse-drawn wagons. Deep mines required vast reservoirs of capital to develop and operate, and owners went to great lengths to protect their returns.

Some hired private detectives or convinced the governor to use Federal troops to suppress the Western Federation of Miners, whose members demanded safer working conditions and a share of the profits. Colorado’s 1904 labor wars resulted in an exodus of radicalized miners from that state, many of whom relocated to Nevada. Having seen firsthand what businessmen would do in order to protect their positions, they formed aggressive unions, ran their own candidates for public office, and battled with those they considered too rich and too out-of-touch for the health of the republic.

Lone Mountain Mine, Eureka CountyPedantic, I know, but I don’t like how movies and fiction usually portray frontier-mining camps. Anachronisms are blended into a pastiche of bat-wing saloon doors, gunfights, and prostitutes—closer to that era’s pulp novels than reality. The Nevada of my stories places mines and miners front and center.

Here’s an excerpt from my forthcoming novel Silver State that addresses some of the interplay between miners and company security:

…normal operations require miners to exit through change rooms up top. There, company officials watch ’em change out of their work clothes, looking for evidence of highgrading. Miners and their unions say it’s humiliating, having to strip in front of suspicious eyes, but the Association estimates that it’s reduced ore theft by more than eighty percent. I’ve worked shifts as a watchman in the change rooms, and let me tell you, the embarrassment and resentment are mutual.

Location, Appearance
Cerro Gordo, Inyo County“Like a tin can, a mining camp often lies where it is thrown.”[5] This quote from a 19th-century newspaper editor suggests that camps were built where they could best support nearby mines (indeed, Nevada is dotted with “Old” and “New” versions of the same town—Reveille and New Reveille, old and new Fairview, and Old Bullion and New Bullion, et. al.—rebuilt once residents determined that the original locations were inconvenient to the mines). Movie sets, on the other hand, typically are built on flat land with mountains in the distance—no mines in sight. This is wrong.

Boom & Bust
The archetype of a lonely prospector hoisting a gold nugget and shouting “Eureka!” was far outside most miners’ experiences. Most toiled for twelve-hour shifts in the smoky gloom of poorly-ventilated tunnels, drilling and blasting ore containing minerals invisible to the naked eye. Many companies—indeed, many camps—were just one bad month from oblivion. I’ve tried to inject some of that precariousness into Silver State:

Atop one rise, I stop, put the Welch in neutral, and set the hand brake—wedge rocks under the wheels for good measure, too. There’s a small mining camp just north of here and while I believe it’s deserted, I want to be sure. Taking binoculars, for several minutes, I lean across the hood and study a cluster of ramshackle buildings. Condensation from my breath keeps clouding the optics. Up on the hillside, though, no smoke rises from any stovepipe; no lights shining through the windows; no dogs or chickens in the yards. The camp’s a ghost. Nevada’s interior is full of little settlements like this, intermittently active according to the appetites of the smelter trusts; busy one year and completely deserted the next. Luckily for me, this is an off year.

Hopefully these details help evoke the gritty reality of Nevada’s 20th-Century mining camps.


1. Wikipedia, Comstock Lode, Later Years
2. Forstall, Richard L., Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990, 3/27/95, All population figures quoted are from this document.
3. Zanjani, Sally, Goldfield, the Last Gold Rush on the Western Frontier, 1992, Swallow Press/University of Ohio Press, pp. 9-13. While traditionally, Harry Stimler and William Marsh are credited with Goldfield’s discovery, even these stories acknowledge that they were following up on Fisherman’s initial find.
4. Ibid.
5. Paher, Stanley W., Nevada’s Ghost Towns & Mining Camps, 1970, Nevada Publications, p. 257, Unattributed quote used in a photo caption.


A big thanks to Quinn Kayser-Cochran. He’ll give away a $25 Amazon gift certificate to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET.


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Caps, Kerchiefs, and Common Sense

I admit to watching the Starz production of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, set in eighteenth-century Scotland, with one eye on the characters’ clothing. I’ve been a history buff and Revolutionary War reenactor for so long that I cannot help it. Hollywood revels in dressing actors for historical productions. However, we all know better than to believe that those costumes are completely accurate. Right?

Claire Randall, OutlanderHere’s the character Claire Randall out of doors. Most of her clothing is fairly accurate for the time period. However none of the three pieces around her neck and shoulders is correct. For an eighteenth-century woman in the out-of-doors, especially a woman who isn’t wearing a shawl, cape, or cloak, Claire is missing several very important articles of clothing. Common sense articles of clothing.

The bodices of eighteenth-century gowns tended to be low-cut, so a woman wore a neck kerchief for modesty when she left her home—and often when she was indoors. The neck kerchief came in several variations and could be worn outside the bodice or tucked into it. Outdoors, it protected a woman’s chest from exposure to cold and blistering sunlight. It also shielded her skin from the bites of disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes and ticks.

She wore a mobcap to cover most of her hair. The mobcap prevented the buildup of grease and dirt in her hair and kept the hair from having to be washed often. It also saved her from spending a lot of time fussing over her hair every day. Indoors, on certain occasions, she might opt out of wearing the mobcap. But when she went outside, the combination of the mobcap and a hat kept the sun out of her eyes and off the top of her head, and it acted as a barrier to those nasty bugs. In the winter, it helped keep her head warm.

Mobcap and kerchiefI’ve reenacted in living history events in the summer and winter. The kerchief does protect my chest. The mobcap and hat do protect my head. Eighteenth-century people knew what they were doing by using all that clothing. People of Western cultures in the twenty-first century think nothing of Claire’s bare head and bare chest. However if she were truly in the eighteenth century, venturing outside without a neck kerchief and at least a mobcap would tell people that she’d lost her wits, or was sexually promiscuous, or both.

Enjoy those lovely “Outlander” costumes. But do remember to take them with a grain of salt.


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Finding the Revolution’s Last Men

Don Hagist author photoRelevant History welcomes back Don Hagist, an independent researcher specializing in the demographics and material culture of the British Army in the American Revolution. He maintains a blog about British common soldiers and has published a number of articles in academic journals. He has written several books including The Revolution’s Last Men: The Soldiers Behind the Photographs and British Soldiers, American War, both from Westholme Publishing, and is on the editorial board of Journal of the American Revolution. Don works as an engineering consultant in Rhode Island and also writes for several well-known syndicated and freelance cartoonists. For more information, check his Facebook page.


The American Revolution was fought by thousands of soldiers, as most wars are, and as in most wars only a few of the participants achieved fame. As individuals, most soldiers played only minor roles in a long and wide-ranging war, but together their efforts were vital in shaping the course of events. With few exceptions, it was the leaders and policymakers who were remembered, while the soldiers remained almost anonymous.

A quirk of fate changed that for six men who were only teenagers when they served in the war that created their nation. In 1864 an innocuous budget report from the Federal government revealed that only a handful of Revolutionary War veterans were still alive and collecting pensions. When a photographer and a clergyman-activist learned how few of these men remained, the race was on to capture their images and words before the opportunity was lost.

The result of this quest by photographer Nelson Augustus Moore and Reverend Elias Brewster Hillard was the book Last Men of the Revolution. Published at the end of 1864, it contained biographies of the last six Revolutionary War pensioners and, more remarkably, a photograph of each one.

New technology for old veterans
The book was innovative. While daguerreotype photography was already a quarter-century old, the technology to make prints from photographic negatives had been introduced only a few years before 1864. There was still no way to put a photograph onto a printed page, so each copy of Last Men of the Revolution contained individual prints of each man pasted by hand onto the pages. It represented the very latest technology for sharing images, capitalizing on the sensation of photographic image collecting that was sweeping the nation.

The book had great visual appeal, but the biographical content was sorely lacking. Reverend Hillard interviewed five of the six men but did no research to corroborate their garbled tales based on fading memories. Indeed, his goal was not to record history but to inspire the current nation, at the time torn by civil war, with the stories of heroes that had seen first-hand the nation’s founding.

Finding the soldiers behind the photographs
The images captured in 1864 have continued to captivate generations of history enthusiasts ever since. Unfortunately, the error-ridden biographies that were published with those photographs have also been repeated without question, even though much of the information ranges from implausible to impossible. The book has been reprinted verbatim several times, and the images with summaries of the biographies are readily available on the Internet. A new study of these six veterans has been long overdue.

Two years ago, Westholme Publishing asked me if I could research the men profiled in the 1864 book and compose a new volume telling their real stories. It was an interesting proposition; although I’ve researched and written extensively about British soldiers in the American Revolution, that’s a completely different discipline than researching American soldiers. The organization and administration of the army was completely different, and the archival sources used to study it is also completely different. But, unwilling to turn down a book project, I accepted the challenge.

The Revolution's Last Men book cover imageIt was quite an adventure. Extensive research revealed a wealth of previously unpublished information about each man and also a new perspective on the 1864 photographs and the 1864 book. It has finally come together in The Revolution’s Last Men: the Soldiers Behind the Photographs (Westholme, March 2015). This new volume presents all of the information that was in the original book but gives it a thorough examination using the pension depositions of the soldiers themselves and men who served alongside them, as well as muster rolls, orderly books, and a host of other primary sources. This is the most complete look at each soldier ever published.

William Hutchings, elderly and youngTo supplement the textual information, The Revolution’s Last Men includes six original drawings of the men as they may have looked when they were young soldiers, based on extensive study of period military clothing and equipment. Rendered by artist Eric H. Schnitzer, these images put into perspective the photographs taken six decades later, providing new visual context for each man’s military service. [Suzanne Adair’s note: Photograph and sketch are of William Hutchings.]

The research for The Revolution’s Last Men revealed many unexpected surprises. Besides additional recollections by the veterans not published in 1864, I discovered several photographs taken by other photographers after the men became celebrities due to the publication of the original book. These photographs, along with the drawings and extensive text, make The Revolution’s Last Men a valuable study of memory as well as of history. Creating this book was a remarkably rewarding experience for me, and I hope that you’ll find it enjoyable and informative both to read and to look at.

William Hutchings, young man, corrected[Suzanne Adair’s note #2: Don accidentally sent the wrong drawing for William Hutchings. Here is the correct sketch.


A big thanks to Don Hagist.


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The Winner of In a Milk and Honeyed Land

Michele Drier has won a copy of In a Milk and Honeyed Land by Richard Abbott. Congrats to Michele Drier!

Thanks to Richard Abbott for taking us on a journey to the origins of our alphabet. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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Stamped On These Lifeless Things

Richard Abbott author photoRelevant History welcomes Richard Abbott, who writes historical fiction set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200BC. His first book, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, explores events in the Egyptian province of Canaan. It follows the life, loves, and struggles of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath. He continues to explore this world in other novels. Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance. When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District. To learn more about Richard’s books, check out his website and blog. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.


“Which yet survive…”
In 1817, the poet Shelley wrote the sonnet Ozymandias, speaking of sentiments

“Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.”

Shelley was inspired by the British Museum’s acquisition of massive fragments of a statue of the pharaoh Ramesses II. His words apply to written records as much as physical ones.

Our modern alphabet is derived from Egyptian glyphs, via the indirect route of Canaanite, Phoenician, Greek and Latin. The earliest link—Egyptian to Canaanite—has only become apparent in the last decade or so, and often surprises people. As well their quite different appearance, Egyptian signs are syllable-based, typically pairs or triplets forming a sound cluster. From Canaanite through to English, we are dealing with a true alphabet. The discovery of this link has raised many profound questions.

Limestone record of workmen's absences, EgyptWhen it was thought that Canaanite arose as a new invention around 1200BC, the appearance of written texts using alphabets about 300 years later made sense. The older, more elaborate scripts like hieroglyphic or cuneiform were thought to be barriers to literacy, with a very large set of signs, and complex links between sign and sound. Their use, it was said, ensured that writing was kept for the elite. Conversely, once alphabetic scripts appeared, literacy would boom. Enthusiastic opinions were expressed, like that of W.F. Albright: “…the 22-letter [Hebrew] alphabet could be learned in a day or two by a bright student…I do not doubt for a moment that there were many urchins in Palestine who could read and write as early as the time of the Judges.”

This happy picture has vanished. Comparative studies worldwide have shown that high literacy rates can be enjoyed with a complex script and high sign-count such as in Mandarin Chinese. Conversely, low literacy rates exist in the presence of a simple alphabet such as Latin or Greek—or English. Real literacy means more than memorizing twenty-two symbols—twenty-six for English. It means knowing how to use these symbols flexibly, accurately, and reliably to capture information and pass it on to others. Learning how to be a writer requires more than learning your letters.

“The hand that mocked them…”
Inscribed sphinx, SinaiMoreover, the recognition of the link to Egypt has pushed back the appearance of the first alphabetic writing by something like half a millennium. We now look back to about 1800BC as the time when Canaanite letters became distinct from Egyptian signs. Short monumental inscriptions or assertions of ownership using alphabetic scripts appear in the later parts of the second millennium, but we do not find a lengthy text until around 840BC. If alphabets were so easy to learn and so compellingly clear, why did it take nearly a thousand years before they are employed to display national pride and propaganda?

Of course the picture is not that simple. Some items—stone monuments, clay tablets, interior wall paintings—survive much longer than others—wax slates, wooden boards, cured leather. Perhaps the early writers in the alphabetic tradition used materials which were inherently perishable? Or perhaps some kinds of writing were reckoned to be peculiarly suited for some topics and not others? At Ugarit, on the Syrian coast, a form of alphabet existed alongside traditional Akkadian cuneiform, and each was used only in some contexts and not others. Religious epics were written in the alphabetic script, and formal diplomatic letters and records in Akkadian—but not the other way round.

“The heart that fed…”
Dream interpretation papyrus, EgyptIn most of the world’s history, writing has been the preserve of a few individuals, mostly men, and the topics they tackled were the concerns of the wealthy. Royal annals, battles, tribute, religious events, trade and so on fill most of the written content of the past. But sometimes we come across something more personal. The royal workmen’s village near the Valley of the Kings in Egypt was home to highly skilled craftsmen and women, and it is refreshing to read their comments about everyday concerns.

“Write to me what you will want since the boy is too muddled to say it!”…“The chief workman Paneb: Kasa his wife was in childbirth and he had three days off”…“I found the workman Mery-Sekhmey son of Menna sleeping with my wife in the fourth month of summer”…“Bring me some honey for my eyes, and also ochre that has been freshly moulded, and real black eye-paint”…“I won’t let you do singing. It is Pasen who has been assigned to do the singing for Meretseger”…“Seek out for me one tunic in exchange for the ring”…“Go and pick the vegetables, for they are now due from you.”

Many of the senders and recipients are men, but there is a good representation of women as well. The full spectrum of everyday life is captured by these letters—families, friendship and rivalry, legal proceedings, employment records, and so on. There are even shopping lists and laundry manifests. Most were inked hastily using hieratic writing on pieces of broken pottery, and passed by hand from person to person. They have a direct, intimate connection with the people of that age, and their preoccupations. But the workmen’s village is unusual, and these insights into everyday life are rare.

Writing is a strange thing. We make little marks of various shapes and use them to transmit complex and often highly personal information to other people. The story of writing continually throws new questions at us, and often challenges preconceived ideas about former generations. What we write, and how we write, tell the reader as much about the writer as about the subject matter.

And, as Shelley said, these fragments have long outlived their original personal and social context. They offer fascinating, and often perplexing, insights into the world of the past.

(The three images are publicly available from the British Museum web site.)


In a Milk and Honeyed Land book coverA big thanks to Richard Abbott. He’ll give away a trade paperback copy of In a Milk and Honeyed Land to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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The British Legion Parties Down for Yule 1780

Christmas party blog hop logoWelcome to the Christmas party blog hop, and thank you for stopping by. Have you ever wondered how people from other times and places celebrated the winter holiday? Each of the authors on the list at the end of this post is sharing an idea about it today. Some authors also have giveaway prizes for you. Visit the blogs, and enjoy this festive season with us.


It certainly wasn’t “all work and no play” for King George III’s army when it attempted to subdue that pesky insurrection in North America. The Brits did their share of “entertaining” while on American soil. Mischianza, anyone?

Banastre Tarleton Some Brits qualified as true party animals, and one of those party animals, Banastre Tarleton, commanded the British Legion, a provincial unit that wreaked havoc among the patriots living in the southern colonies in 1780 and 1781. A drinker, gambler, and womanizer, Tarleton had goofed off at University College, Oxford and blown through his inheritance before hitting his stride as a light cavalry officer during the American Revolution.

Tarleton is a secondary character in my novel Camp Follower: A Mystery of the American Revolution, set in late 1780 and early 1781. (Here’s why I included him.) And because Tarleton was the kind of fellow who’d never have passed up seasonal festivities, there’s a December winter holiday feast and dance in Camp Follower to give readers an idea of how a Crown forces unit might have celebrated in the backcountry of South Carolina. It’s a Yule party, not a Christmas party—and here’s why. Writing that scene gave me the opportunity to show another side to Tarleton and the Legion: soldiers at rest, not fighting their way through the backcountry. A devastating battle would come all too soon for them on 17 January 1781 and is depicted in the book’s climax.

Here’s an excerpt from the Yule party in Camp Follower:

The morning of the twenty-fourth, day of the Yule celebration, [Helen] awoke to the aroma of roasted hog and root vegetables, slow-cooked the night before in pits…A substantial amount of cooked hog and vegetables, baked apples and pears, and cornbread vanished before dark — largesse from Tarleton, distributed among the rank and file.

After nightfall, in a torch-rimmed field north of the manor house, Helen, her garnets at her throat and ears, wandered from a huge bowl of mulled cider to a huge bowl of waes hail to a supply of the best wines from market…During the first course of onion soup, she was seated next to Fairfax, but they ignored each other, and the fellow on her other side stayed sober long enough to hold a lucid conversation about deer hunting…The soup was cleared away, a bell rang, and the men scrambled to switch seats, to the laughter and surprise of the ladies. Broiled bass appeared on the tables, and Helen got to hear about horse racing and advantages of various firearms from a cornet and a captain…

The bass vanished, the bell rang again, and Tarleton, ruddy-cheeked, wine goblet in hand, redirected an officer of the militia so he could plant himself next to Helen and scowl at her. Gold and braid on his uniform winked in the candlelight. “You’ve no idea how I’ve had to fight my way over here…Madam, I need your advice on a delicate matter. With whom should I dance the first tune?”

Camp Follower book coverGiveaway prize: Want a book to read? Use the comment form to tell me something you learned from this blog post and what your 2014 holiday plans are like. I’ll send you an ebook copy of Camp Follower, nominated for two awards. Make sure you provide your name and an accurate email address so I can contact you. Offer expires 31 December 2014.

Happy holidays to all my readers. And don’t forget to check out the authors’ posts on the following list.

Thank you for joining our party
now follow on to the next enjoyable

1. Helen Hollick : “You are Cordially
Invited to a
Ball” (plus a giveaway prize) –  
2. Alison Morton : “Saturnalia surprise – a winter party tale”  (plus
a giveaway prize) –
3. Andrea Zuvich : No Christmas For You! The Holiday Under Cromwell –
4. Ann Swinfen : Christmas 1586 – Burbage’s
Company of Players Celebrates –
5. Anna Belfrage :  All I want for Christmas (plus a giveaway prize) –
6. Carol Cooper : How To Be A Party Animal –
7. Clare Flynn :  A German American Christmas –
8. Debbie Young :  Good Christmas Housekeeping (plus a giveaway prize) –
9. Derek Birks :  The Lord of Misrule – A Medieval Christmas Recipe for Trouble –
10. Edward James : An Accidental Virgin and An Uninvited Guest – and – 
11. Fenella J. Miller : Christmas on the Home front (plus a giveaway prize) –
12. J. L. Oakley :  Christmas Time in the Mountains 1907 (plus a
giveaway prize) –
13. Jude Knight : Christmas at Avery Hall in the Year of Our Lord 1804 –
14. Julian Stockwin: Join the Party –  
15. Juliet Greenwood : Christmas 1914 on the Home Front (plus a giveaway) –
16. Lauren Johnson :  Farewell Advent, Christmas is come” – Early Tudor Festive Feasts –
17. Lucienne Boyce :  A Victory Celebration –
18. Nancy Bilyeau :  Christmas After the Priory (plus a giveaway prize) –
19. Nicola Moxey : The Feast of the Epiphany, 1182 –
20. Lindsay Downs:  O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree (plus a giveaway prize) –
21. Regina Jeffers : Celebrating a Regency Christmas  (plus a giveaway prize) –
22. Richard Abbott : The Hunt – Feasting at Ugarit –
23. Saralee Etter : Christmas Pudding — Part of the Christmas Feast –
24. Stephen Oram : Living
in your dystopia: you need a festival of enhancement…
 (plus a giveaway prize) –
25. Suzanne Adair: The British Legion Parties Down for Yule 1780 (plus a giveaway prize) –



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Christmas Party Blog Hop 2014

Christmas party blog hop logo Some call it Saturnalia, some call it Yule, some call it Christmas. Are you curious how people from other times and places celebrated the winter holiday? Meet me on my blog one week from now, and look for the logo on the left. Twenty-seven authors of historical fiction will offer you essays and good cheer—and a few freebies.


Did you like what you read? Learn about downloads, discounts, and special offers from Relevant History authors and Suzanne Adair. Subscribe to Suzanne’s free newsletter.

Enter your email address: