Skip to content


Welcome to Living History Today. This site  aims to share the author’s fascination with everyday life in the past from the perspective of a practical multi period re enactor. It is slowly growing to span a wide range of centuries, skills and ideas. It started because anyone can pick up a history book and find the clearly documented lives of the famous, but discovering how ordinary people lived is not as easy.  In teaching, it was never the important ‘facts’ that fascinated classes, but the details; what people ate, what their homes might have been like, and how they viewed the world. These are the sorts of issues that I hope to cover. There won’t be that much on the fashions of the various periods for two reasons: there are already plenty of excellent resources available and several informative blogs, and also because for ordinary people fashion was not really an issue – the fact that ‘second best’ clothes are mentioned and passed on in wills indicates that until relatively recently in the nineteenth century clothes were worn until they wore out, not changed because they were no longer in fashion. What people wore in the country could lag decades behind the garments currently popular amongst fashionable londoners. I do hope you enjoy cruising around the articles.

Pensthorpe Medieval Spectacular 2013: Hereward awakes

The end of August approaches. It’s been a busy year for events and this year things will not slow down with the approach of Autumn. The bank holiday long weekend sees the ninth multi period medieval event at Pensthorpe up in North Norfolk. This is a terrific event which has grown and developed year on year. This weekend the event is highlighting an English folk hero with roots in reality: Hereward the Wake. He lived in the mid 11th century, based somewhere around the then Isle of Ely, and led popular opposition to the Normans who had become the ruling class following the defeat of Harold and the Saxon army at the
Battle of Hastings in 1066.
When he was alive his nickname seems to have been ‘exile’ or ‘outlaw’, thought to have been imposed by the Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, for his unruly behaviour as a young man which forced him across the sea, perhaps to Flanders. In many ways his activities rival those of a later figure, Robin Hood, but whereas Robin has survived in popular myth and TV adaptation, Hereward has become a vague, mysterious character who receives little popular acknowledgement. The epithet ‘Wake’ was not recorded until much later, perhaps the 14th century and means watchful or wakeful – in other words that he was awake to the threat of change wrought by the Normans. At the time he lived the Fenland areas around Cambridgeshire and parts of Norfolk were sparsely populated, and the sudden mists and little known safe ways through the marshy area allowed him to operate a guerilla war against the Norman forces. According to legend he became violently opposed to the Normans after they murdered his brother and stuck his head on a spike, but since legend also entangles him with maidens, dragons and giants it is difficult now to know where fact ends and the embroidery of myth begins. Doubtless Pensthorpe will see both battles and myth from the storytellers this weekend.
As the event covers the whole of the Medieval period it is not only Hereward who will be celebrated. There will be Vikings and later medieval figures and the afternoons will host a formal joust which has become a popular finale to the day’s activities.

The Celts – Simplified

Obviously there are numerous and far more scholarly commentaries on the Celts than this will be, so for anyone looking for detailed information this will be a disappointment as it is intended for young school students. This is a simple introduction to a complex and still unfolding part of our history and I’ve set it out as the FAQs I get asked.
So who were the Celts? Read more…

Is This Lunch or Dinner?

I overheard this child’s innocent question when we were having lunch in a pub recently. The parent gave a vague answer, but little did they realise that this simple question opens a can of worms that involves History, Geography and that terrifying beast – social class in England. Until the early nineteenth century it would have been easier to answer. Read more…

Our Months and Days – the origins of their names


Although I tend not to subscribe to the view that the English have the Romans to thank for everything that smacks of early civilisation, they are the ones to thank for our way of working out the days of the year. Originally they calculated that a year should generally have 355 days in it, but that to average out occasional anomalies (things that didn’t fit) there should be an additional month of 22 or 23 days every two years. This system worked well for a time, Read more…

Mind your Manners – a look at late Medieval and Tudor mealtimes and The Banquet

Anyone who has ever seen an old film about the late Medieval/Tudor period can be forgiven for coming away with the idea that feasts were riotous chances to eat and drink far too much, as rowdily as possible. It would seem that everyone present tried to cram as much meat into their mouths as possible before hurling their bones at hungry dogs who prowled in the rushes on the floor. In fact, the only bit of this message that holds any truth at all are the rushes on the floor, and by Queen Elizabeth’s day rush matting which could be taken outside and shaken or swept was becoming far more fashionable. Read more…

Pensthorpe Medieval Spectacular 2012

This year has been a roller coaster for outdoor heritage events. The wettest drought in memory  led to many established events being cancelled as sites disappeared under water; spectacularly so at Kelmarsh when their Festival of History site flooded as particpants arrived to set up.

The main outdoor season, which tends to end with the Bank Holiday events, is poised to go out with a spectacular bang up in Norfolk. The well established Pensthorpe Medieval Spectacular promises to be the best ever.

Climax of the witch hunt at Pensthorpe 2012, with spectacular natural lighting for effect

An unforgettable moment in the 2012 Pensthorpe Medieval Spectacular. Photos: Black Knight Historical


Read more…

QAIMNS: Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service

Although QAIMNS (The Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service) was founded 110 years ago in 1902 its real origins lay further back in the nineteenth century and it owes a debt to Florence Nightingale. Read more…

2011; the year so far..

The start of May seems so far away now, but that was when this year’s events began for me. Read more…

Cutting a Quill: first catch your bird

The word pen comes from the Middle French for feather. A quill pen withstands a fair amoThe Lord's prayer in latin. Black ink and decorationrunt of pressure, so the best quills are those made from the flight feathers (primaries) of strong flying birds like geese or swans.  Once upon a time when these birds were eaten more regularly, the wings were a by product, so the feathers were readily available for use as dusters – many houses would have had a goose wing for dusting ledges – or to be used in the kitchen, or to be made into pens or brushes (the animal hair was bound and set into wax plugs and inserted into the hollow quill).

Realistically in the twenty first century the best option is to talk very nicely to a farmer at the local farmers’ market, especially before Christmas when they are likely to be preparing birds for sale and will often save a wing or two. If freshly killed, the wing joint is still quite rubbery and the feathers can be extracted cleanly using a sharp knife and brute force. This should not be undertaken by children.

I find it is then best to leave the feathers for a month or two as they will dry out and harden. They do run the risk of splitting when cut and shaped, but usually cut cleanly enough without snagging. Although pen knives were invented for exactly the purpose of cutting quill pens, I have found that with the right sharp scissors the job can be easier.

First find how the feather naturally fits to the hand: it should curl comfortably up and over the space between thumb and fingers. The outside of the feather’s curve is the upper side or point of the pen. Turn the feather so you have the underside towards you and with a safety board underneath, make one neat downward slice approximately 5mm long, ending at the feather’s tip. This will remove half the feather’s remaining natural point. Using a pointed edge, such as a kebab stick, scrape out the honeycomb of pith inside the feather and dispose of it.

Turn the feather over and make two opposing diagonal cuts, each starting about 5mm up from the tip and shaping the remaining feather nib in towards a point at the centre. If the cuts come to a point you will have a fine nib for delicate lettering and flourishes, but if you leave 1-2mm between the two cut edges you will have achieved a right handed italic nib for larger letters and broad strokes. Do note that lefthanders are penalised here. When a right handed person puts the nib to paper or parchment they automatically achieve an angle of 45 degrees which is perfect for writing. If a left handed person holds the nib in exactly the same way, only the edge of the nib will rest on the paper. For this group, an extra cut diagonally and obliquely away from the centre of the nib up and out to the left is needed to achieve the same angle of nib to paper.

Cut quills showing left and right handed nibs cut from feathers that curve comfortably over the hand

Cut quills showing left and right handed nibs cut from feathers that curve comfortably over the hand

We’re almost there. Only two things remain to do. The first is to harden the nib so that it doesn’t bend too easily and this is achieved most easily by holding a large old spoon full of sand over a candle so that it heats up and then plunging the nib into the sand. Alternatively, the old terracotta oil diffusers that have an indentation on the top for oil and take a night light are ideal. For anyone not considered an adult in law, please check first and get an adult to supervise as fires can easily be started by accident. Never try holding the newly cut nib over a naked candle for two reasons; firstly it doesn’t work – it just melts away all your effort and smells awful, secondly it can be dangerous.

Lastly, trim the feather off the spine to about half way up. Although you see quill pens with the feather intact, if you look closely at Medieval illustrations you will see that unnecessary feather was trimmed away. Not only does it tickle the hand otherwise, but if you do trim it properly you will end up with a beautifully balanced writing instrument that will balance effortlessly in the space between thumb and fingers.

There are those who maintain that the nib must be split in order to hold ink. By all means try this; it may work for you but doesn’t for me. Gall ink is fairly viscous, so the pen has to be dipped in it fairly frequently anyway. I find a split nib is simply more likely to sputter and drip. The important thing to remember when writing with a quill is that it isn’t something mass produced and inert, so you have to work with it. Downward pulling strokes are not only easier to do but allow the pen to work with you: upward strokes where the pen is pushed away are more likely to cause blots and the pen can protest. Also remember to lift and reposition the pen at the top of a stroke – something that is unnecessary with modern writing implements. The best advice, though, really is to go with the flow: students that have been really cautious and careful rarely make as good a job of writing as those who are relaxed and let the curves and shapes flow from the quill so simply relax and enjoy using the new pen.

When it starts to scratch and spit ink it will be time to recut and re harden the nib: just repeat the steps above. The quill will last for years if you are reasonably careful, although if you become a prolific writer then, like Charles Dickens you may need a devoted companion to sit beside you to constantly cut and sharpen your nibs.

Sample black letter alphabet showing broad down strokes. Flourishes are added last.

Sample black letter alphabet showing broad down strokes. Flourishes are added last.

This article is a companion to a previous item on making ink from oak galls and old iron nails:

Was he really ‘Bad’ King John?

‘Bad King John’. I remember as a child learning the adjective at the same time as the name. History has generally decided to vilify the king Read more…