Friday, 26 September 2014

The effect of the sun

When we ordered the purple wool for the Thomasteppich, we decided to do a little experiment to see  what the effect of the sun was on the purple colour. We hung some threads of wool outside for about two months, exposed to the weather and the full sun for most of the day (well, Dutch weather permitting ...). The effect of the exposure to the sun is enormous: the purple has bleached to a light  lilac colour. 
The same wool. Left the threads that were exposed to sun and weather for 2 months (therefore they are more loosely wind), right the threads in the original purple colour that was kept in a box in the dark.

This does give some thoughts on the effect it will have on the final tapestry. The Thomasteppich project will likely continue for some 10 years before it is finished (the nuns did it in 2 years time, but they embroidered every day), and embroidery is mainly done outside (though not in the full sun).  However, we already see that the light green has become lighter.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Medieval mussels

It all began when we found a book on excavations in Arnemuiden, the town Anne was born. Among the finds at the harbours edge was a curious red earthenware pot, dating from the late middle ages. A similar pot had been found in the nearby city of Middelburg. As this type of pot was only found in  Zeeland, a delta province with (during medieval times) lots of small islands and fisher-folk, and plenty of opportunity to gather (free) mussels around the shore, it was thought to be a pan used to cook mussels. As we happen to like cooked mussels, and this was a medieval pot from Anne's home town, we wanted to add a replica of this mussel pot to our cooking inventory. We looked if there was a potter that was willing to make the replica and ended up at Atelier Jera, run by Elly van Leeuwen from Leiden, the Netherlands.

 A red earthenware 'mussels bowl' with lead-glazing inside standing on three rims. Dated around 1375-1450. 
Middelburg, Berghuijskazerne, now in the Zeeuws Museum, Middelburg, the Netherlands.

The red earthenware 'mussels bowl' with lead glazing found in Arnemuiden, the Netherlands. 
Dated around 1350-1450. The sizes are recalculated based on maximum diameter provided.

She made a very beautifully crafted replica of the mussels bowl, as well as a replacement for our jack-dawed milk bowl. Her bowl is slightly smaller, 28 cm diameter and 11 cm high. We tested our new mussels pot on our next event in Eindhoven. Of course using a medieval recipe for mussels. Below we provide the recipes for three different medieval dishes containing mussels.

Our mussels bowl replica made by Elly van Leeuwen.

You might wonder how mussels gathered around the shore would end up fresh in the mainland (e.g. around the Historic Open Air Museum in Eindhoven). There is some evidence that mussels were transported during medieval times in barrels filled with salt water. This prevented them from being spoiled.

Last weekend in the Historic Open Air Museum in Eindhoven we tried two of the three medieval mussels recipes that are provided below.

Cawdel of Muskels

This is an interesting recipe for mussels and leeks in almond milk, from 'the Forme of Cury' an English cookbook from the 14th century (recipe 127). The modern adaptation is from 'Pleyn delit' by Constance B. Hieatt, Brenda Hosington and Sharon Butler (ISBN 0-8020-7632-7).

Cawdel of muskels, a tasty soup-like recipe.

Take and seep muskels; pyke hem clene, and waisshe hem clene in wyne. Take almaundes & bray hem. Take somma of the muskels and grynde hem, & some hewe smale; drawe the muskels yground with the self broth. Wryng the almaundes with faire water. Do alle thise togider; do therto verjous and vyneger. Take whyte of lekes & perboile hem wel; wryng oute the water and hewe hem smale. Cast oile therto, with oynouns perboiled & mynced smale; do therto powder fort, saffroun & salt a lytel. Seep it, not to stondyng, & messe it forth.  

Add salt and saffron and boil the mussels. They are ready when they are open.
  • 1/2 cup of ground almonds
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 1-1.5 kg mussels in shell
  • 2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
  • 3-4 leeks, washed and thinly sliced
  • 1 bottle of dry white wine
  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon saffron
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon each ground ginger, all spice, and pepper.

Take the mussels out of their shell and chop them to pieces.

Draw thick almond milk from the ground almonds and water. Soak mussels in cold water and discard those that open prematurely. Put them in a large pot with leeks, onions, wine, vinegar, salt and saffron. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer until the shells open (about 5 minutes). Stain broth through a cheesecloth and reserve. shell mussels and discard the shells. Chop onions and leeks and sauté them them gently in oil for a few minutes. Meanwhile grind (blend) half the cooked mussels with a small amount of the broth. Chop the remaining mussels more coarsely with a knife. Combine all of these ingredients with the almond milk, adding broth if more liquid seems needed. Simmer gently to reheat, stirring constantly; do not overcook. Season to taste.

Saute the onions and leeks.

Mussels in the shell

The following is a recipe for cooked mussels from Manuscript M.S. B.L. Harleian H4016, recipe 106 of around 1450. Taken from the book 'The culinary recipes of medieval England' by Constance B. Hieatt (ISBN 978-1-909248-30-4).

Take and pick over good mussels and put them in a pot; 
add them to minced onions and a good quantity of pepper and wine, and a little vinegar. 
As soon as they begin to gape, take them from the fire, and serve hot in a dish with the same broth.

The mussels in the shell were made using the new mussels bowl.

This recipe is, in fact, much alike the modern cooked mussels. Mussels are boiled in white wine, together with a drop of vinegar, some vegetables (for example onions) and spices (pepper). When the shell is open they are ready to eat. You can use an empty open shell as pincers to pry another mussel out of its shell. The use of vinegar and pepper gives it a interesting twist from the modern cooked mussels.

'Ein hofelich spise von Ostren' (jugged mussels)

This mussels recipe stems from medieval France and was taken from the German book 'Wie man eyn teutsches Mannsbild bey Kräfften hält' by H.J. Fahrenkamp (ISBN 3-89996-264-8). The recipes in this book seem genuine, but the author is lax in providing the exact sources.

  • 1.5 kg mussels
  • 3-4 tablespoons oil
  • 1 medium sized onion 
  • 100 g breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 l dry white wine
  • 1-2 tablespoons wine vinegar
  • some bay leaf, parsley and tarragon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • a bit of saffron
  • white pepper, salt

 Wash the mussels and throw away the ones with an open shell. Put the rest in a large pan with some oil and heat strongly for around 5 minutes, while shaking the pan, until the shell have opened. Throw away the unopened ones. Take the pan from the fire and put through a sieve, catching the mussel-oil liquid in a bowl. Take the muscles from the shell and set aside. Cut the onion in fine pieces and stir fry them in a little oil. Add the breadcrumbs and stir. Add the wine and vinegar and the herbs and let it simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the herbs and use a mixer to make a smooth purée. If necessary add the mussel-oil liquid. Add the spices, keeping in mind that none should give a dominant flavour. Add the mussels to the sauce and reheat the mixture slowly.

Medieval mussels with St. Ambrose in the Book of Hours of Catherina of Cleves, by the Utrecht Master of Catherina of Cleves, Ms. M. 917, page 244. Note that the crab has too many legs.   

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Triangular stool in Miroque magazine

The triangular stool, which I have made in 2011 features in a 'do-it-yourself' article in the latest issue of the German re-enactors magazine Miroque. The complete issue 11 of this magazine features many short medieval ideas/guides of making your own stuff. Although I do wonder if you actually can make the triangular stool using the sparse 2-page guideline in the magazine, it does provide the more complete sources (this website and that of blood and sawdust) that will help you make the stool. From this issue I did get an idea of making a clay oven, to use for medieval cooking, but that will be a project for later.


The article in Miroque.
The triangular stool, one of the five images used in the Miroque article.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Ceci con ove

This is a favourite dish of us, consisting of chickpeas and soft cheese. It is tasty, suitable for vegetarians and easy to make. As a consequence this dish is made most of the times we are re-enacting. 

The original recipe of 'ceci con ove', or 'chickpeas with eggs and cheese' stems from Il libro della cucina, a 14th century Tuscan cookbook. The modern adaptation is by Constance B. Hieatt, Brenda Hosington and Sharon butler and can be found in their book 'Pleyn Delit - medieval cookery for modern cooks'.

Take fresh young chickpeas, boiled; 
and pour off the water, then cook them with spices, saffron, salt and oil 
and beaten eggs, cheese or meat as you wish.

The modern cooks, and we as well, used dried or canned chickpeas instead of fresh chickpeas. Especially if you use the latter the dish is very fast to make.

3-4 cups cooked dried chickpeas (or 2 cans chickpeas)
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin and coriander
salt to taste
pinch of ground saffron
4 eggs, beaten
a package of soft goat cheese (around 200 g)

If you use dried chickpeas, soak them overnight in water. Cook the chickpeas in the water in a grape or pipkin (with a lid) near the fire, occasionally turning the other side of the pipkin to the fire. Beat the eggs with the seasoning, the oil and the cheese. Drain the chickpeas and add the egg-cheese mixture. Put the pipkin by the fire to reheat, while stirring the contents, to slightly thicken the sauce.

Though the dish does not look that appetising, it tastes deliciously and is also eaten well by our children (who are quite suspicious of most other medieval dishes...)

The red earthenware pipkin (without a lid)
is standing at the edge of the fire.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Alphonso's base 7 tablas game

A game of seven-point tables, using three seven-sided dice and seventeen pieces on each side. 
King Alfonso X the Wise is named as one of the players here. folio 85 verso.

The Libro de los Juegos of Alphonso X 'the Wise' from 1283 contains many medieval board games, both familiar and unfamiliar. The king invented the seven-sided and the eight-sided dice, and with it some games that use these dice. Among the games that use the seven-sided dice are 'The game of the four season called the world', 'Astronomical tables', 'Escaques' (or astrological checkers) and 'Decimal chess'. Alphonso also invented a tablas (backgammon type) game that used the seven-sided dice, which is described in this blogpost.

Making the game board

"Here begins the game of tables and how it is played with seven-sided dice. Now that we have shown you the dice for decimal chess, how they are made, and how they are used as we were saying above to play this chess, we want to show you here and now the game of tables that use these dice.
The board is to be squared with bars around it like the other boards and spaces for the pieces we have already said. In each quarter there are to be seven spaces, because that is the highest value on the dice, for a total of twenty-eight spaces.
The pieces are to be round and the spaces carved out like half-wheels to fit them better. Half of the pieces are to be one colour, the other half the other so they can be distinguished, for at total of 34."

A game board for tablas (backgammon or tric trac like games) is a large board and the 7-based board is an even larger one. As a consequence of their size, backgammon boards were (and are still) folded and usually part of a games box with a chess board on on of their sides. In fact, the name backgammon (back game) might be derived from these game boxes, where tablas is the 'game on the back of the box'. Our 7-based tablas board is no exception to this and has two chess boards on the other side. The reason for having two chess boards is that they can be used to play the medieval game of Rithmomachia. A future blogpost will be dedicated to that intriguing 'battle of numbers' game.

The outside of the games box consists of two chess boards (or one rithmomachia board). 
You can see that the middle bar is of equal width as the edges, but made up of two smaller parts.

Also this medieval game board uses a poplar panel as a base (in fact the poplar panels are all from the same tree). Pear was used for the edges, with a greater thickness of 5 mm for the tablas side. The rim was also twice as big (2 cm) as where the two boards connected (1 cm). When the two parts of the board are open, this would provide a middle bar of the same 2 cm width. The edges were first glued to the board, after which the half moon receptacles for the game pieces were fitted and glued. These half moon receptacles were made by drilling holes with a drill press in 6 mm thick pieces of pear using a 35 mm Forstner bit. The four pieces of pear were then cut at 2/3 along the length to get the half moon receptacles (i.e. the larger parts). The points of the receptacles were rounded with a file.
Pieces of triplex were used to press the half moon receptacles against the edge of the board. Two multiplex boards were used as a sandwich press. As the half moon receptacles were slightly higher than the board edge (~1 mm) only the receptacles were pressed. Afterwards, the receptacle was equalized with a hand plane.

Left:  The two multiplex press boards (for one of the two board parts). Right: The pieces of triplex board used to press the half moon receptacles against the edges.

The two board parts were connected to each other by three brass hinges, with brass nails (and glue) driven into the wood. As the board parts had to be connected without any space between the parts, an angled hinge recess was made to accommodate both the hinge and the pins. 

Left: The angled hinge recess. Right: The folded game box showing one of the chess boards.

Making seven-sided dice has been described in a previous post. As game pieces for the 7-base tablas commercial wooden draughts tablemen were used.

Playing the game

"The pieces are to be round and the spaces carved out like half-wheels to fit them better. Half of the pieces are to be one colour, the other half the other so they can be distinguished, for at total of 34. Seventeen of one colour and seventeen of another, so that if you put two pieces on each point of a quadrant, there are three left over to play or enliven the game because without them it could not be done. [i.e. 15 = 6x2 +3 for normal tablas and 17 = 7x2 +3 for the base 7 tablas] This is why the pieces are paired because as in this game of chess which a piece is found all alone away from the other pieces without anyone to guard it and it can be taken, it is taken as we said before.

Also in this game of tables if they are not doubled up as we said, the other player who throws dice that correspond to that space is to capture it since there is no one to defend it.
And the prime is one player takes so many of the other’s pieces that he then does not have spaces to enter them, he wins the game."

The starting position of the game of 'diecisiete tablas' as shown on folio 85v, now on our pear and poplar tablas board.

For the 6-based tablas the following is added, which also will apply for the 7-based tablas:
"And tying is that even if he has very few pieces and he enters them that neither one can play even if he wishes. Whence also for the prime because without these three pieces which are in addition to the first twelve [or fourteen for the base-7 tablas], it could not be done."

 The game of quinze tablas [fifteen pieces], folio 73v.

The base-7 tablas game shown above on folio 85v and our game board is an expanded version of 'quinze tablas' on folio 73 of the Libro de los Juegos, and could be named 'diecisiete tablas' [seventeen pieces]. It uses the same rules, and the same amount of dice. But instead of three six-sided dice, three seven-sided dice are used. 

According to Sonja Musser, quinze tablas could be an extremely simple game in which the pieces do not cross paths but both players race, first to move all their men into their respective inner tables and then to bear them off. I think this is very unlikely, as King Alphonso X (the Wise!) would certainly not be associated in an illumination (folio 85v) with such a simple game. The other option she presents is a game of contrary motion, a view that is shared by both H.R.J. Murray and David Parlett. Pieces should be beared off from the quarter of the table where the other player began. Single (odd) game pieces can be captured, and must be re-entered from their original starting quarter of the table.

 Movement of the pieces on the board. White follows the red arrow, black the black arrow.

I think that this game should be played differently. The seventeen (or fifteen) pieces of the starting position should be moved to a similar (double) position on the opposite side (i.e. not bearing them off) in order to block the entry points of the captured pieces of the other player.* During movement from one side to the other (via the other quarters of the board), single game pieces are vulnerable to capture by the other player. Captured pieces must be entered again at the starting quarter. If a player cannot do so, because all the possibilities are blocked by the opposite colour, he loses the game. This type of play also explains the occurrence of having a tie, when both players block each other, and the need of more tablemen than fourteen (or twelve). A maximum of two pieces (a double) can be in a half-moon slot (i.e. not three or more as in other tablas games).
Presumably, die rolls that can not be used are lost.

* Which also explains the second sentence of quinze tablas (folio 73): "The first game of tables is this one that they call fifteen pieces or six [double rows, i.e. the blockade] and however many they can place there from fifteen to one."

Black wins. White cannot enter its two captured game pieces as its quarter is 
fully occupied by double black game pieces.

Two versions of a draw. Left: Black cannot move in, as the position is blocked by white, which cannot move out of the black blockade. Right: Both white and black pieces cannot leap over the other colour, as they would need a roll of 8 (seven being the maximum on the die).

The Libro de los Juegos concludes on the 7-base tablas game by mentioning that all the normal base-6 tablas games can be played as well on the board, with the extra game pieces added and using seven-sided dice.

"On this board for tables can be played all the games for the other board which uses six-sided dice, as we said above, noting that on a six-sided die six is the highest roll and on the dice of great chess eight is the highest, that on these dice seven is the highest. And that with higher or lower rolls any moves can be made according to the roll of the dice.
This is the explanation of this game and the diagram of its arrangement and how the Emperor [i.e. Alfonso himself] plays on this board and therefore his figure has been shown here.


  • H.R.J. Murray, 1952. A history of board games other than chess. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK.
  • S. Musser Golladay, 2007. Los Libros de Acedrex Dados e Tablas: Historical, artistic and metaphysical dimensions of Alfonso X's book of games. PhD Thesis, University of Arizona, USA.
  • S. Musser Golladay, 2007. English translation of Alfonso X's book of games.
  • D. Parlett, 1992. The Oxford history of board games. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. 

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The sella curulis: the final touch

The finished sella curulis when folded.

With all the separate pieces of the sella curulis finished, there was one thing left to do: join all the parts and make the chair out of it! First, all the wooden parts were finished with linseed oil. Then I added some metal chair sliders to the feet. These sliders allow for easy movement of a chair over a floor surface, but more important they lifted the feet a few mm above the ground. As the gilding of the claws also went partly under the feet, this would protect the gold from being scratched away.

The metal chair slides have three metal pins that are driven into the wood. You cannot hit the slides with a metal hammer as this will dent your sliding surface.

Two views of the chair slides on the feet of the sella curulis.

The parts of the sella curulis are joined with mortise-tenon joints. These are in turn fixed with wooden pins. The pins were also made from pear using the 6 mm hole in the dowel plate. For each mortise-tenon for the rail two short pins were needed (8 in total), but for the X tenon really long dowels were needed, around 9 cm long. Using pins is generally enough to fix a joint, and normally I do not use glue for these joints. But this time I wanted to be sure it stayed fixed, so I added a 2-component wood glue to the joints. After the glue had dried, the holes for the pins were drilled and they were driven in. 

Left: The clamped and glued sella curulis. Right: The glue was applied very carefully in the mortises.

Above left: The long pins for the X mortise. The other photos show the pinning process of the seating rail. The chair was upside down and rested on blocks covered with towels to protect the gilding of the eagle heads.

The holes for the pins of the X mortise were already pre-drilled on a drill press, because the margin to drill the hole in the mortise and tenon was very tight. A slight deviation in the angle of a hand-held drill could compromise the folding capability of the chair. The pre-drilled holes served as a guide to drill the hole through the X tenon after glueing. When making 6 mm pins, the holes are made slightly smaller (5.8-5.9 mm), so they pins will stay fixed. For a 9 cm long pin this is not feasible, as the pin will likely break during the repeated hitting with a hammer. The pin has to go into the hole more easily, so also here a 6 mm hole was used with a little drop of glue to keep the pin in.

Left: the pre-drilled hole in the X mortise. Right: the pin in its place.

The pin driven in. You can see that the head of the pin is staring to split due to the repeated hammering. The eagle heads rest on towels for protection.

Yes, it is finished!

 Two more photos of the finished sella curulis.

Finishing the medieval folding chair also meant that I had to clean up all the mess  in the workshop. 
In the upper left corner you can see another project on its way.