Medieval Monday: Smelting Iron Ore / Bloomeries

I am re-posting this from over a year ago with the intent of making my next post about blacksmiths and their work. It is a subject I haven’t tackled yet even though blacksmiths played an important role in medieval society.


My second book, Ancient Voices, is set in a small mountain village called Minhaven—a place full of miners and blacksmiths.  Naturally I had to do some research, to figure out what mining techniques were used back then, and how iron ore dug from the ground was transformed into something that could be used to make things like tools, knives, and swords.

hotslagOne process I had particular trouble envisioning was the smelting process. The simplest and most common furnaces used in the Middle Ages were called bloomeries, and they were typically built out of stone or clay.  Iron ore was placed in through the top, along with a lot of charcoal for fuel, and kept burning for hours.  Very high temperatures had to be maintained for the process to work.  Air could be fed into the bloomery with a hand bellows.  Sometimes limestone or oyster shells were added into the mix as well, so that they would combine with the impurities in the ore.  The end result would be a brittle slag that could be separated from the iron, which could then be hammered into submission by a blacksmith.

I found a couple of great videos that show how the smelting process works.  The first is replicating Edwardian era techniques, which were relatively unchanged from the Middle Ages.  It gives a great demonstration in only about 5 minutes.

For those of you wanting more, this video is more authentic medieval, and shows the entire process, but is considerably longer (about 22 minutes).  Definitely worth the time if you are interested in the topic.  Both videos are very well done. Enjoy!

Medieval Monday: Dirty Laundry

Those dirty clothes really pile up, don’t they? Especially when you have kids. As much as I grumble about having to wash and fold, I’m not really doing the work—the washing machine is taking care of the hard part for me. Our medieval counterparts certainly didn’t have that luxury, or many others that we don’t give much thought to. So in honor of my growing laundry pile, I thought today’s post would answer the question of “how would I have done it back then.”

Laundry was unquestionably women’s work. Some cities had communal wash houses, where women could come to share news and gossip while they worked. Soapwort, an herb with cleansing properties, was sometimes used to get fabric clean. It was also beaten with “beetles”, rinsed, and wrung. Marjoram could be used to give washing water a pleasant scent. Clothing could also be washed in natural bodies of water (rivers, streams, ponds), and beaten against rocks.

If one needed to remove stains, this could be done with the use of Fuller’s Earth or ashes soaked in lye. The mixture would be applied to the stain, allowed to try, then rubbed off. For more delicate materials, such as silk, verjuice was another remedy. Removing stains such as oil or grease was a more complex process. One recipe is as follows: “To remove grease or oil stains, take urine and heat until warm. Soak the stain for two days. Without twisting the fabric, squeeze the afflicted area, then rinse. As an alternative for stubborn greasy or oily stains, soak in urine with ox gall beaten into it, for two days and squeeze without twisting before rinsing.” White cloth could be cleaned and brightened by soaking it in lye, which was mixed using ashes and urine.

Undergarments were washed fairly often, even if they were only rinsed out at home in warm water, but woolen outer garments were rarely washed. They would have simply been shaken or beaten with a brush or a bundle of twigs to get rid of dust and dirt. Robes and cloaks might be rubbed with wax to weatherproof them, but this process would have been too expensive for peasants who would have worn felted wool instead.

Washed clothing was dried outdoors; laid across bushes, flat on grass, or draped across wooden frames or ropes. These of these could be moved indoors during poor weather if there was enough space.


Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover more topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.

 

Medieval Monday: Insults

For today I have a short but hopefully amusing post sharing some medieval style insults! You can surprise your friends with these, or maybe use them for your current medieval-era work in progress. Now for the disclaimer. I can’t authenticate these as purely medieval, so historical fiction writers are fairly warned. They are funny regardless of when they first came into the language–a couple of them are still in use, I think. Know of some fun medieval insults that aren’t on this list? Share them in the comments. 🙂

Fop – a foolish person

Fustilugs – a big, clumsy, gross person

Churl – coarse and peasant-like

Cox-Comb – someone who is vain and foolish

Cumberworld – a useless person

Glos Pautonnier – a gluttonous scoundrel

Hedge-born – of base birth, low-brow, or illegitimate

Loiter-Sack – a freeloader

Muck-spout – an overly talkative person who curses a lot

Quisby – someone who is very lazy

Raggabrash – someone who is disorganized

Skamelar – a freeloader and a parasite

Sot – a drunk


Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover more topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.

 

Medieval Monday: The Labors of May

May Day marks the beginning of summer in the medieval world. The weather is really warming up, and there are lots of new chores to begin. Planting and harrowing continues, and weeding the grain fields becomes an important chore. Cabbages, leeks, onions, and garlic are ready to be planted, as are those plants used in fabric production like hemp, flax, madder, and woad.

In the Medieval Home Companion, the author advised his young wife, “Throughout the months of April and May sow the green vegetables that are eaten in June and July. Cut the green vegetables of summer, leaving their roots in the earth. After winter, the roots put out new shoots, and you must hoe and loosen the soil around them. Sow new ones, and pick the new shoots of the old. From April until the feast of the Magdalene is a good time to sow green vegetables…Set out white cabbages and round cabbages that are sown in February and March. In May, one finds new beans, turnips, and radishes.”

Meadows and pastures are growing lush and green, finally able to sustain new lambs and calves who have been weaned from their mothers. Their milk will now be used for dairy production; cream, cheese, and butter.

Bees are swarming too, and can be captured to start new hives to provide honey and beeswax.


Enjoy another episode of “Tales from the Green Valley”. Topics included for the month of May are dairy production (milking, churning butter) , plowing, harrowing, charcoal burning, sowing peas, making fishing rods and tackle, fishing, making straw rope, baskets, and thatch for roofing, period foods, and celebrating May Day.


Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover more topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.

 

Medieval Monday: Pets

Pets are a common part of the modern lifestyle. We lavish affection on them, share pictures of them with the world, record their antics on our phones, and spend a small fortune on their care, including special food, toys, and treats. I have a house full of animals myself; three cats, two dogs, a lizard, hamster, and sizeable fish tank. Pets amuse us, soothe us, and—usually—keep our blood pressure down. They’re sweet and fun to have around. So I thought for today’s Medieval Monday I would approach the subject of pets from a medieval perspective. In a world where animals were mainly kept for food and labor, did medieval people ever keep what we would consider to be pets?

To answer the question, we must first understand that the concept of a “pet” as we know it did not really exist in the Middle Ages. The idea didn’t become a defined word until the end of the 1500s, and even then, it didn’t have quite the same meaning it does today. Domesticated animals, like cats and dogs, were kept strictly for the services they provided. Cats kept rodents under control. Dogs protected people and livestock, or were used for hunting. This doesn’t mean that people weren’t affectionate toward their animals, it just means they weren’t kept purely for their companionship. They had a job to do which earned their keep and made them valuable. Even in the late Middle Ages (really the Renaissance era) pets were a rarity, and were mainly cats, dogs, or birds kept by the wealthy or by monks and nuns. There are records that the Church discouraged this practice, advising them “not to keep too many and not to take them into church with them.” They thought the resources squandered on these animals would be better used to benefit the poor.

A 13th century scientist and philosopher named Albertus Magnus wrote a book about animals that included advice on their care. He noted that the cat “loves to be lightly stroked by human hands and is playful, especially when it is young.” He said that “they lose their boldness” if you cut off their whiskers, but that their ears should be clipped to keep the dew out. He indicated that dogs meant to be used for guarding should not be constantly petted or fed from the table, or they will “keep one eye on the door, and one on the generous hand of the master.”

Another writer from the 14th century had advice for the care of hunting dogs. He said that their kennels should be off the ground at least a foot, and be built of wood in such a way that the dogs could stay warm in winter and cool in summer. They should always have fresh straw on the floor, clean water, access to a sunny yard for play, and be given daily walks.

However, the animal with the most special status in the medieval world was actually the horse. Albertus noted in his book that war horses were known for displaying intense affection toward their masters. When their masters were lost, they often refused to eat and “grieved to the point of death,” even shedding tears. Another text indicates that “the horse has strong emotions, being “ioiefil in feeldes” and “comforted wiþ noyse of a trompe”; he can be “excyted” to run by the sound of a familiar voice. Furthermore, he is “sory” when beaten in battle and “gladde” when victorious. Some know their “owne lord alone” and forget “myldenesse” if their lord is overcome. It is not unusual for a horse to allow no other man to ride on his back but his “owne lord alone” and “many hors wepeþ whan his lord is deed.”

While working horses were clearly not “pets,” they certainly achieved a greater status than other farm animals (most of which were eaten when their usefulness for other tasks waned), or even than cats and dogs. Horses became the closest thing to a true companion for their masters, most specifically those which were highly trained (such as war horses) or which were ridden very often, or over long distances. Horses displayed loyalty and emotion that people could connect with. They were highly dependent on human care, and the humans who cared for them were equally dependent on their horses. Researcher Kristen M. Figg wrote, “both horses and dogs were often housed in very close proximity to humans, whose lives depended on the quality of the animal who would carry them into battle, help them locate or pursue game, warn them of danger, and—in moments of distress—show empathy for their suffering. This final and distinctive characteristic was crucial, in the context of a culture that speculated much more than we on the nature of the soul and insisted on the distinctive theological status of human beings.”

Moreso than the cat, which was highly independent and not particularly loyal, or the falcon, which was noble but acted on its own interest, dogs and horses both represented the Feudal values which were predominant in the Middle Ages. While none of them qualified as “pets” by our modern day definition, there is no question that they formed close bonds with their humans, and were the predecessors of the beloved, pampered animals that keep us smiling today.


Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover more topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.

 

Medieval Monday: Easter!

Easter was the most important holiday in the medieval world, with many medieval calendars beginning the “new year” with Easter. The holiday included both serious reflection and joyous celebration. Lent was taken quite seriously—forty days of fasting was strictly observed, and the preparations made in anticipation of Easter were extensive. The days before Easter were largely spent in church, starting with the previous Wednesday when services called the Tenebrae began.

On Maundy Thursday (celebration of the Last Supper) the service was solemn and very quiet, with the altars stripped bare of all their decoration. Instead they were covered with branches. This was symbolic of the treatment Jesus received when he was stripped, beaten, and forced to wear a crown of thorns on his way to the cross.

On Good Friday, the medieval world mourned Christ’s death, and a common practice was to begin the day by “creeping to the Cross” barefoot and on one’s hands and knees. Church services were held in almost complete darkness, with just one candleholder (a Hearse) that was gradually extinguished to symbolize the earth falling into darkness. Only the central candle, which represented the light of Christ, remained lit. The priest would read the story of the Passion from the Gospel of John and lift up prayers for God’s mercy and the cleansing of their sins. It would have been a powerful ceremony. No one used tools or nails made of iron on Good Friday. Holy Saturday would have been another day of somber reflection as the world remained in darkness with Jesus lying in the tomb.

But on Easter morning, everything changed—Jesus had risen from the grave, and it was time for a celebration! Church began at sunrise, with everyone gathered outside of the church to sing hymns before going in for services. The darkness from before was replaced with light and the somber mood replaced by joy. Some monasteries put on plays to re-enact the day’s significance. The monks would wear white robes to represent the women who first discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty, and that he was indeed risen. The forty day fast was finally over, and once all of the church-related activities had ended, it was it was finally time for feasting. Feasts were usually put on by royalty, lords, and wealthy nobles. Symbolically, putting on a great feast for the community was reminiscent of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. With no expense spared, it was an act of charity toward those who had much less, and whose winter reserves were nearing depletion (if not already depleted).

Certain fun traditions were observed as well, such as wearing or receiving new clothes and enjoying colorful Easter eggs. Eggs were boiled in salt water to preserve them during Lent, when eating them was forbidden.  They made their re-appearance on Easter, sometimes painted or dyed for the occasion—usually red to symbolize the blood of Christ.  In Germanic regions they were painted green and hung on trees. Children made games of rolling them downhill, or they were hidden (and found) to represent the disciples finding Jesus’ empty tomb.  Egg coloring could be as simple as boiling them with onions to give them a golden color, or they could actually be decorated with gold leaf, as Edward I did with his Easter eggs in 1290.

The celebration did not end on Easter Sunday, however. Hock Monday followed, during which young women “captured” young men and would only release them if paid a ransom (really a donation to the church). On Hock Tuesday, the roles were reversed and the young women were captured. As you can imagine, these antics did not always end well, and eventually attempts were made to better control them—sometimes even forbid them outright.


Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover more topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.

Medieval Monday: The Labors of April

Spring is here! Farm work really gets underway—harrowing and sowing are important chores for this month. Crops planted in April included grains, like barley and oats, and legumes like beans, peas, and vetches. Grain seed was planted by standing with one’s back to the breeze, and flinging a handful of seeds outward from the waist. This was a quick and easy way to create a dense growth of grain. It took four bushels of seed for each acre planted.

By contrast, legumes were more carefully planted. A hole was poked into the soil with a “dibbler stick,” and the seed dropped in. It took three bushels of beans or peas to plant each acre. The field was harrowed after all the planting was done by dragging a tool like a giant rake across the field. This covered all of the newly planted seeds with soil.

Flax and hemp were also planted in April. These had a myriad of uses, the most notable of which was fiber production. In addition to large crop fields, household gardens were cleaned up and made ready for planting in April as well. Herbs and coleworts would be the first things planted.

Calving continued, and the lambs were continually being weaned, which meant dairy work could begin for the spring. Cream, milk, cheese, and butter were back on the menu again. Pigs also began to have piglets, so any food leftovers were given to the pigs.

It’s time for another episode of “Tales from the Green Valley” which focuses on what daily life would have been like during the month of April. Subjects in this episode include spring cleaning (and other chores of a medieval housewife), calving, bedding, building/repairing stone walls, field work, and making food from early spring ingredients. Enjoy!


Did you miss last week’s post on medieval tower houses? Click to read and get a visual tour of one towerhouse still standing in Ireland. Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover more topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.