Category Archives: Uncategorized

Unquiet Women: from the Dusk of the Roman Empire to the Dawn of the Enlightenment

My new book is a bit of a special project.  For years I had wanted to redress the imbalance inherent in historical narratives – they are dominated by men and by men’s narratives.  My students are always asking me where the women are in history; and often I hear the view that women in history were either queens, nuns, or totally invisible.  I hope that Unquiet Women answers that.  Not many of the fifty odd stories in this book are about nuns or queens…

From the inside flap….

‘Wynflæd was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who owned male slaves and badger-skin gowns; Egeria a Gaulish nun who toured the Holy Land as the Roman Empire was collapsing; Gudfrid an Icelandic explorer and the first woman to give birth to a European child on American soil; Mary Astell a philosopher who out-thought John Locke. In this exploration of some of remarkable – but little-known – women living between between the last days of Rome and the Enlightenment, Max Adams overturns the idea that women of this period were either queens, nuns or invisible. In a sequence of chronological chapters, a centrepiece biographical sketch is complemented by thematically linked stories of other women of the time. A multi-faceted and beautifully illustrated study of women’s intellect, influence and creativity, Unquiet Women brings to life the experiences of women whose voices are barely heard and whose stories are rarely told.’

There is a strong personal element underlying the book: my mother was one of fourteen, and as I was growing up in a family without a father around I was heavily influenced by my extraordinary aunts and Grandmother – not to mention my heroic mother.  So the book is both inspired by them and a tribute to a remarkable family of positively unquiet women.

Unquiet Women will be published by Head of Zeus in hardback on November 1st 2018.

In the Land of Giants autumn talks, signings and appearances

Official book launch courtesy of Explore programme and Ampersand inventions

Commercial Union Building 4th Floor, Pilgrim St Newcastle on Thursday Dec 8th 2015 7pm free entry


The Voyage of Eda Frandsen

Hexham History Society, Tuesday 10th November 6.30pm Queen’s hall

Maryport Litfest, Senhouse Roman Museum

Saturday 14th November, 11 am 

Books on Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne

Thursday 26th November, time TBC


Forum Books, Corbridge 11am Saturday October 10th

Cogito Books, Hexham 11am Saturday December 5th

Darkness and light

Je suis ecrivan.  Je suis Charlie.  One writer under attack means all writers are under attack.

On a lighter note. I will be appearing at the Words on the Water festival in Keswick on 12th March – just before Helen Macdonald whose brilliant book Hawk has won lots of prizes. I’ll be talking about The Wisdom of Trees, and in a rather lovely setting on the shores of Derwentwater.  Looking forward to meeting her… and Melvyn… and Shirley Williams. For details check out the website

Wisdom of Trees launch

The official launch of The Wisdom of Trees will be held courtesy of the Explore programme at the Joseph Cowen Centre, Commercial Union House on Pilgrim Street Newcastle: Wednesday 29th October 2014.  Signed copies for Explore members at £10 each; £15 to non-members or join on the night.

For details contact EXPLORE

Oswald book launch

The King in the North: the life and times of Oswald of Northumbria is published by Head of Zeus on September 1st.  The publishers write:

Oswald Whiteblade lived one of the most influential and colourful lives in early English history. Before his death in battle against the pagans of Mercia cut short his reign as king of Northumbria (634-42), he remodelled his northeastern English homeland as a Christian kingdom, founded the monastery of Lindisfarne, introduced a culture of learning which influenced all Europe, and became the most powerful ruler in Britain.

Max Adams’s thrilling account rescues Oswald from Dark Age obscurity to reveal an unjustly forgotten English hero – a king whose return from exile to reclaim his birthright was the inspiration for J. R. R. Tolkien’s Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. But THE KING IN THE NORTH is more than just a biography of the first great English monarch; it is a stunningly researched, wide-ranging, beautifully written and revelatory portrait of early medieval England in all its aspects.

Wickerman 2012

It’s an anthropologist’s paradise: here are wannabe Sioux chiefs, couples dressed as interbreeding big cats; mods, rockers, shamans, skinheads, Rastas with crocheted rainbow hats and clip-on dreads; Wellington boots are de rigeur.   Normal social rules are suspended – like the socially-acquired niceties of middle-class semi-detached spaces and boundaries, so that clothes stalls and hooka-pipe pleasuredomes spill onto one-another’s front lawns and perfectly respectable nine-til-five types find themselves being adorned with daisy chains, bindis, woollen ponchos and an astonishing variety of head-gear in the name of abandoning all reason and taste.  The bass-bin in the reggae tent drowns any other sound within a hundred and fifty yards and above all the competing rackets, the screaming of young girls on scary fairground rides is a trebly solo-line that never goes away.  Hippies tread on one’s toes in the nicest possible way.  Sharps, hucksters, eight-year-olds practicing handstands, dozing sixty-somethings, fatties, skinnies, flower-children, kilted Neds from Govan, exhausted litter-pickers, a pair dressed authentically as coppers who turn out to be actual coppers, all sharing the same lush green tellytubby fields of Galloway with a tent city which might be Port au Prince after an earthquake.  The same sense of shock, purposelessness and dazed befuddlement prevails.  Anything goes.  Everything goes.  It’s hard to know where to point a camera: it’s hard to know where to look.

Smells: roast pork, weed, stale beer, the toilets, Thai curry and above all, by Saturday afternoon, oneself.

Drunks: every variety in every conceivable state between slightly happy and mortally ill.

Lost children: all of whom seem to be called Sebastian, which makes it harder for their parents to locate and reclaim them; who knows if all the Sebastians are realigned with the correct Janes and Davids.  Who cares?

Conversations: A group of girls who think they know us stop to ask us for a light and it turns out they are from Prudhoe or at least one of them is and she’s called Ali, well, they have friends in Felling, we might know them: Billy Robinson?  Was he the guy who got shot in the Black Bull?  Well, you know the house on the corner by the petrol station, that’s where me Nan used to live and we went there on a Sunday for wor roast…  Do you know my friend Tracy, she’s from Old Ford, somewhere like that?  And so on.  My friend Neil (who really IS from Felling) and I discuss the encounter afterwards.  Who were those girls?  We have no idea.  

And then there’s the music.  The organisers have splashed out on a few showy headline acts… the Scissor Sisters struggle man-and-womanfully to match the epic scale of the campness which threatens to engulf them.  The Levellers do their level best; Newton Faulkner gets the late afternoon masses going with a good old sing-song and Charlene Spitieri proves that HRT works by dragging out the Texas songbook of twenty years ago – or is that thirty years ago – and treating the last-night crowd to a waggle of her still-admirable hips.  So much for the thinking man’s crumpet: the real action was going on elsewhere, in the tents.  Washington Irving (who, apart from a nerd like me, knows that the real WI was the author of Sleepy Hollow and Rip van Winkle?) had the benefit of the best PA on the whole site in the Go North tent, and made good use of it with a lively rocky set; next door one of the highlights of the weekend in the Solus tent were the sensational Lafontaines, the Motherwell-based rap/hip-hop chaps whose lead singer Kerr OKan had the crowd rapped round his jabbing, pointing little finger (see pics), teasing and cajoling them by turns and egged on by a feisty, tight, very competent, fired-up and musical backline.  They will go far.

The choice one had to face on Saturday night was no choice: either Buster Bloodvessel and Bad Manners or Charlene.  Buster absolutely nailed it in the Big Tent; those poor teenagers who had never been exposed to live high-octane ska before didn’t know what had hit them.  Nor had they likely seen their parents move so much and so enthusiastically in the vertical plane until now.  It’s just as well: otherwise they might have left Wickerman still labouring under the illusion that, at sixteen, they know everything.  Yes, it’s a time for parents to get one over on their children: we were there the first time round, Sonny.  Buster, reassuringly, still has the biggest tongue in the world; and yes, he still knows how to use it.

Sunday: a crapulous morning after the night-of-the-fireworks and the ritual burning of the seriously sinister Wickerman… tents tearing at their moorings in the dawn gale, ignored by their slumbering occupants; disorderly lines of camper vans and normally-well-valeted but now slightly soiled cars form a queue a mile long to get away.  A late breakfast for some of us, smugly watching the chaos fold and unfold against a backdrop of white horses stampeding on the Solway Firth to the South, and one by one the tents disappear until there is a solitary one-man flapping orange nylon bivuoac left.  Somebody wake him up….  

A chance for the beer-soaked fields of Galloway, the exhausted stall-holders and fluorescent stewards to rest for another year before the next benign invasion; and for the tribesmen, witches, hippies, Rastas and Highlanders to return to their offices for another stimulating week’s work in pursuit of an acceptable pension scheme..  

ME and Chronic fatigue

Max is often asked about ME, having suffered from it in the 1980s and having survived and thrived since then.  If you think you have ME or Glandular fever, go and see a doctor and remember, Adams has NO medical training: these are personal thoughts and reflections; everyone must deal with such illnesses in their own way and seek professional help.  But there is precious little help out there, so Adams offers these words of support…

… please feel free to post comments on your own experiences here .

… and if you are a medical practitioner and you think Max’s advice is wrong or stupid, please do comment.

I had ME from 1982 on and off for several years.  Since no-one took it seriously then, I had to work out myself what was the best strategy for dealing with it.  The following is the regime I came up with, which worked (and occasionally still has to work) for me.

The latest word seems to be that with ME, a post-viral fatigue syndrome, the body is working against itself as if it has triggered an immune response; like being allergic to oneself.

Some don’ts and do’s:

You should completely avoid strong stimulants – and this includes coffee, fizzy drinks, orange juice and very definitely alcohol.  ME seems to strike the liver hard, I guess trying to process all the toxins that are washing around the body; so don’t give it any more to deal with than you have to.  Tea seems to be alright as it releases its caffeine slowly; herbal tea probably even better.  Water, of course, is the best drink bar none; lots of it.

Exercise: in those brief gaps between spells of fatigue, there is often a sense of remission.  You feel a bit more energetic, tempted perhaps to go for a run or a swim.  My experience is that this should be avoided too.  It invariably leads to a crash: a week or so in bed, unable to do anything.  I suggest nothing more than gentle walking for a good while after you begin to feel better.

Diet.  My experience was that my body was not nearly as efficient as normal in processing nutrition.  I learned to cut down to very moderate levels of heavy carbohydrates: pasta, rice, bread etc, potatoes.  Not cut them out, just go very easy on them.  I ate and still eat a lot of fish, replace a fair amount of wheat products with oats, and eat loads of fresh fruit and veg.  I cook with olive oil and I exercise, as my other pages will show, plenty.  My stamina and fitness are way better than most people my age (I just walked 180 miles from my home to Glasgow and could have done it all over again) and so I must be doing something right.  Oh, and being nice to your body is great for stress relief.

I also found that taking vitamin supplements did no good at all: it seemed to me that the body couldn’t absorb such concentrated ‘hits’.  For what it’s worth, my feeling is that in an ME state the body needs gentle, complex help.  So I used, and still use, bags of dried fruit and nuts from health food stores to boost those things that seem to be so lacking with ME: mainly trace metals: selenium, lithium, zinc, iron etc and the usual vitamins.  If you only do one positive thing, get stuck into a couple of handfuls of dried fruit and nuts every day: especially brazils, hazels, walnuts, raisins, almonds, apricots.  If you look up on the Internet tables of the trace metals we need, and what nuts provide them, you should work out how to make a good balance.  And for women, iron is, of course, extremely important.  I know there are some (expensive) vitamin pills available which claim to be much easier for the body to absorb; maybe worth a try.

The only supplement which might be worth taking is Vitamin D in winter.  Research is showing just how important it is and how much more so the further north you go.  ME is more prevalent in the North.  So either fill your diet with foods rich in D or get a pill (but with my warning above about how the body deals with pills).  And go out and get some sun: it’s good for you so long as you avoid burning.

General dietary tips: when I feel a bout of ME coming on, I start eating a lot of fish, chicken, fresh fruit (NOT juice), pro-biotic yoghurt, fresh vegetables of lots of different colours: beetroot, carrots, brassicas especially.  For fillers and snacks (much better than big meals) I recommend oatcakes which have no gluten and a good GI. 

This is basically common sense.  The other thing worth mentioning is that I learned to be able to ‘taste’ ME; like there were toxic chemicals washing around in my head.  The potentially clinical levels of depression, sometimes misanthropy and self-loathing are SYMPTOMATIC.  You are not going mad, your body is ‘poisoning’ you.  So be nice to it, treat it very gently and give it the best possible chance to recover itself.  And try as much as you can to be nice to yourself: it really helps.  Even your best friends probably think you are skiving or just losing the plot. 

Torch relay… really?


The blessed torch passes along the street and for two hours it’s possible to sit in an upper storey window watching the scene unfold: crowds and clouds gather in unison; a lone copper watches.  In parochial Northern England it is easy to dissociate this odd ritual from Hitler, who introduced the relay in 1936 to show off his Aryan countrymen’s physiques; and to forget Prometheus, whose daring act of self-liberation in stealing the secret of fire from Zeus is re-enacted by hundreds of small-scale worthies oblivious to the connotations.  In celebrating human endeavour, the crowd simultaneously evidences its own willingness to be manipulated by the corporate Gods of the new Olympus: Coca-cola, Lloyd’s Bank, Samsung and any number of other monopolistic sponsors.  Couldn’t actually see the torch in all this; but later, a chap in a white suit brought his into the pub and was much in demand for photo-opportunities.

Prometheus, whose punishment was to be chained to a rock for ever and to have his liver torn out every day by an eagle, would have struggled with the ironies.  Humans’ self-enslavement to Capital is an everlasting open wound, to be sure.  On the other hand, there is something earthily touching about the English: their sluggish stoicism and clubbable good humour in the rain.  They may not be liberated, but who else would smile in the face such conditions of imprisonment?


A picnic with a special friend in Northumberland this week.  Among my very favourite places to be are the waterfall at Roughtin Linn and the church at Old Bewick, a Romanesque masterpiece of architectural and spiritual simplicity (but see my article on saints and shamans under the Bernice tab).  The painted apse at Old Bewick is one of our jewels, but it’s easy to miss other delights, such as this terribly simple composition of two bell ropes and their shadows hanging against the chancel wall.  As an exercise in tone, line and form it just leapt out at the lens.  The deliciously vernacular Cheshire-cat Adam and Eve are a hoot.

2012: what’s changed?

Two hundred years on… 1812-2012

It’s hard to escape the fact that this is Charles Dickens’s bicentenary.  And any music lover knows that Tchaikovsky wrote an overture about Napoleon’s disastrous advance on Moscow in 1812.  Anniversaries are fascinating: they make us look back and see ourselves in perspective.  But it’s even more interesting to ask the question, what else was going on in the year that Dickens was born – unremarked at the time by any except the Dickens family – and in which Jane Austen was dotting the last i’s in Pride and Prejudice, sensationally published the following year. 

As it happens, 1812 was one of those years.  Britain was lurching towards final victory in the wars against France which had already lasted nearly twenty years.  The Duke of Wellington, taking advantage of Napoleon’s distractions in Russia, beat a French army at Salamanca and entered Madrid.  Concerned that the soldiers’ feet were suffering from all that marching, Marc Brunel, the French émigré engineer and father of Isambard, was given an order to manufacture boots for the army in a factory which was a marvel of the age (he went bust after Waterloo three years later). 

Across London plain Mr Humphry Davy, third son of a Cornish cobbler, became Sir Humphry for his services to science, having discovered half a dozen new elements in a dazzling decade of experimentation (and injury).  He celebrated by marrying a wealthy Edinburgh bluestocking, retiring from the Royal Institution and going on honeymoon – to France, where he was given the Napoleonic Gold medal.  In doing so he missed a rather important letter which arrived too late on his doorstep.  The letter reported a terrible disaster which had occurred in May in the Northern coalfields.  Ninety-two men and boys perished in an explosion at Felling Colliery on Tyneside and a group of concerned gentlemen formed the Society for the Prevention of Accidents in Mines as a result.  Would Sir Humphry come to the aid of the miners and invent a lamp that would help them to see underground without the risk of exploding methane?  The famous safety lamp had to wait till his return two years later; and that’s another story entirely.

If you think all that’s pretty momentous, enough to fill a year, think again.  For 1812 also saw the only assassination of  a British Prime Minister: Spencer Perceval, killed by a disgruntled banker.  In other faint echoes of our own times, radical journalists Leigh and John Hunt were imprisoned for some very rich remarks about George, the unlovely Prince Regent, made in their paper, the Examiner.  And then there is the small matter of the United States of America declaring war on Britain.  It was a small war, as these things go; but still. 

Looking back two centuries it feels sometimes as if the world has changed irrevocably.  Then again, one is inclined to think that Britain’s ancient antagonists the French have it right when they say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.