This is Mildrith, the oven of the Happy Monk Baking Company, a clay and straw mixture with a firebrick hearth. She is the heart and soul of our baking enterprise. So why is she called Mildrith?
One of the workers on the oven, Jacques Marmen, wondered several times whether the oven was a male or female … or perhaps non-binary? We both had a strong belief that she was female. But what would her name be? That was the big question.
Richard Miscovitch, the author of From the Wood-Fired Oven, speaks of naming his oven, “Fornax,” after a Roman deity of the furnace. Tongue in cheek, he says he often says a brief prayer to the goddess when he places a load of bread into the oven, asking that there be enough fire and heat to bake his bread.
Not long after our oven was finished, the name came to me. (She whispered it to me!): Mildrith. Some know her as Mildred.
Mildrith is close to the Old English spelling and pronunciation of her name. The modern version of the name is Mildred.
A few years ago, I wrote a novel, a medieval adventure yarn, named The Song of Oswald. It is about two brothers, a monk, named Richard, and a Robin Hood figure, named Oswald. Oswald is hired by a corrupt abbot to steal the bones of a long-dead saint in France and bring them back to his abbey in Kent. The saint I had in mind was St. Mildred of Thanet, and called her that in the book. Many great adventures follow, but the saints bones don’t make it back to Kent. The novel, alas, has yet to be published (another story), but inspired an interest in medieval monasticism … and, perhaps the name of the Happy Monk Baking Company.
Here is why the oven is named Mildrith.
St. Mildred, who lived in Anglo-Saxon England (early 700s), was the daughter of a Mercian King and his wife, St. Ermenburga. At an early age, Mildred’s mother sent her to be educated by an abbess at Chelles, France, where many English women gentry were trained in the religious life.
A young nobleman, related to the Abbess of Chelles, asked for Mildred’s hand in marriage. The abbess was in favour of the union, but Mildred was not. She told the abbess that she was in France to follow the religious life, not to be married. The abbess could not prevail. All her advice turned to threats and then physical blows. Nothing could persuade Mildred from marrying the nobleman. Finally, the abbess threw Mildred into a large hot oven. After three hours, the abbess opened the oven door expecting to find ashes. Mildred was standing there, unscathed and radiant, and walked out past the shocked abbess.
The nuns and other faithful venerated Mildred as a saint; but the abbess continued to abuse her, kicking and scratching her. In one exchange, she tore out a handful of Mildred’s hair.
Mildred was able to send her mother a letter, enclosing some of the hair that had been torn from her head. Queen Ermenburga immediately sent ships to fetch her daughter. She returned to her village of Minster-in-Thanet in Kent and eventually became an abbess herself.
An 11th-century hagiographer, a monk named Goscelin, called her “the fairest lily of the English.”
I was inspired by the story and decided to use some of it in The Song of Oswald. When my wife and I visited Minster-in-Thanet in 2015, we visited the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. I confided to the Vicar that I had written of St. Mildred, but seeing how Mildred is still revered in the town, I realized I couldn’t use her name, and so gave her a different one so as not to offend the good people of Minster.
I am not a religious baker, but I do hope the loaves that emerge from my oven are as radiant, unscathed and miraculous as St. Mildred.