Medieval Monday: 14th Century Life

What Was Life Like in 14th Century England?

by: Brumafriend

1__S_39-gF6nJ5GVhvZLV6YQThe 14th century was, both worldwide and in relations to England, a century of social turmoil, filled with plague, famine, and an unprecedented desire for social mobility. By the end of the 1300s, the long-standing system of serfdom which had previously been the core of English socioeconomic and class relations had started to irreversibly deteriorate. The key turning point was the Black Death of 1348 (which began the year prior in Europe) and saw the foundations of English society shake. Therefore, it makes sense to look at the 14th century not as one unit but rather as two, with the plague as a divider.

Before the plague, English life for the peasant class remained fairly unchanged from what it had been for hundreds of years. Medical technology and practices had been slowly improving over time, although more so in the Islamic world than in Europe, and many afflictions — such as the Black Death itself — were explained as divine punishment or by superstition, rather than any biological cause. England’s population had grown rapidly from the year 1200, rising to 5 million by 1400. This increase was largely spurred on by, and subsequently encouraged, the prosperity of England’s agricultural economy — which still made up a very rural society — caused by the adoption of crop rotation techniques. This, in turn, led to an increase in the number of towns. Although many were small, others, such as Norwich, consisted of around 5,000 inhabitants and the biggest cities, such as London, neared 40,000 in population. This meant that society was no longer merely agricultural and other professions, such as in the exportation of wool and cloth, could be pursued.

The Church was also a prevalent force at this time as England was still highly Christian (as a result of, and certainly a cause of, scientific ignorance) and this constituted a significant part of a peasant’s life. A peasant was under an economic obligation to pay a tax (known as a ‘tithe’ to the Church), which came in the form of 10% of the value of the land that he farmed. At a time when peasants were struggling to get by, this tax was deeply unpopular, although it was rarely challenged due to the deep-set nature of religious faith. Indeed, the majority of the population were not even able to comprehend the words delivered to them from the Bible each Sunday, as it was not given in the vernacular and the vast majority of the lower classes could only speak English. Most were also illiterate, which meant that independent religious practice was difficult and possession of books was pointless as well as expensive. At this time, books were often as much a testament of wealth as an intellectual endeavour. Books were incredibly expensive, especially as the printing press would not be invented until 1440, and were often encrusted with jewellery to signify the wealth of its owner.

Whilst life was certainly hard for a 14th-century commoner, with a bad harvest being the difference between life and death, there was still time for pastimes. Such activities included gambling, such as dice games, and playing Chess. Alternatively, inns had, since their emergence during the 12th and 13th centuries, increased in number throughout the country, offering commonfolk an opportunity to relax and converse with others. The exact hobbies and feelings of peasants during this time remains somewhat unknown due to the lack of credible primary sources as a result of a high illiteracy rate and the gradual decomposition and deterioration of the few physical first-hand accounts, which were often lost or discarded.

Continue reading…


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

Advertisements

Medieval Monday: Executioner

What Was It Like to Be an Executioner in the Middle Ages?

by: Emma Bryce

Forget the image of the hooded executioner swinging an ax; much of what we think we know about these medieval figures isn’t true.

8xCuScaVhawKbLfWGRPeAP-1024-80

One afternoon in May 1573, a 19-year-old man named Frantz Schmidt stood in the backyard of his father’s house in the German state of Bavaria, preparing to behead a stray dog with a sword. He’d recently graduated from “decapitating” inanimate pumpkins to practicing on live animals. If he passed this final stage, Schmidt would be considered ready to start his job, as an executioner of people.

We know the details of this morbid scene because Schmidt meticulously chronicled his life as an executioner, writing a series of diaries that painted a rich picture of this profession during the sixteenth century. His words provided a rare glimpse of the humanity behind the violence, revealing a man who took his work seriously and often felt empathy for his victims. But what’s more, Schmidt wasn’t necessarily all that unusual; historical anecdotes reveal that the prevailing stereotype of the hooded, blood-spattered, brutish executioner falls far short of the truth.

So then, what was it like to do this work hundreds of years ago in Europe? And how did “executioner” become a legitimate job title in the first place?

Continue reading…


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

Medieval Monday: Bizarre Trends

12 Bizarre Medieval Trends

by: Frances White

From pigs on trial to hairless faces, discover what went viral in the Middle Ages.

Every age has a tendency to look back at older generations and judge the customs, beliefs and traditions of the time. However, it is fair to say that there are few periods in history that we regard as strangely as we do the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages have been stamped an unlucky time to be born and popular consensus is that people were poor, food was dull, everything was dirty, and for the vast majority of it the population was dropping like flies. What we don’t hear about is that people created some of the most peculiar, bizarre, hilarious and astounding trends in human history. Let’s take some time to embrace the medieval period and all of its lovable eccentricities.

1. Animal court

Life in medieval times could be tough, and this didn’t just apply to humans. Just like their two-legged owners, all manner of animals from livestock to insects were put on trial if suspected of breaking the law. There are records of at least 85 animal trials that took place during the Middle Ages and the tales vary from the tragic to the absurd, as described in the book “The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals,” by E. P. Evans (E. P. Dutton and Company, 1906).

Xwz2RHePinM3PrYac2bnpB-650-80

By far the most serial offenders were pigs, accused and convicted of chewing off body parts and even eating children. Most were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging or being burned at the stake. In 1386, a convicted pig was dressed in a waistcoat, gloves, drawers and a human mask for its execution.

It wasn’t just pigs that felt the sting of the law, though, In 1474 a court found a rooster guilty of the “unnatural crime” of laying an egg; unwanted rats often found themselves on the receiving end of a strongly worded letter, asking them to leave the premises; and curiously enough, there was a trial of dolphins in Marseilles in 1596.

However, not all of the trials ended in brutality. One donkey, which found herself the victim of unwanted sexual advances, was proclaimed innocent after a strong recommendation from a convent’s prior, declaring her to be a virtuous and well-behaved animal.

Continue reading…


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

Medieval Monday: The Labors of September

“Now in autumn, in which the fruits of the earth are assembled, is the time of reaping and of the vintage, and it signifies the time of the General Judgment, when every single person will receive the reward for his works.” – Hrabanus Maurus (9th Century Theologian)

Summer is nearing its end—can you feel it? For some of us the nights are finally getting cooler, and the birds are just starting to gather and circle in large numbers. With children going back to school, our routines have changed, and we’re already feeling some anticipation about upcoming autumn activities and holidays.

threshing2Medieval people had a heightened awareness of seasonal changes. The onset of autumn brought about a final burst of activity as they prepared themselves to endure an inevitable winter. The grain harvest that had begun in summer continued into fall, with threshing and winnowing of what had already been reaped from the fields. At the same time legumes, such as peas and beans, were gathered after they had dried on the plants. Never letting anything go to waste, the leftover leaves and stems could be used to feed the animals, or plowed under as fertilizer. Some fields would be plowed anew with seeds for rye and winter wheat.

Another significant labor for September was harvesting grapes for wine making. Because of the amount of land needed, and the extensive labor involved in both cultivating and working vineyards, they were usually only kept on large estates or monasteries. Wine was incredibly important in medieval society. It was consumed by most classes with meals, but also had medicinal uses, and spiritual significance as part of the Eucharist.

vineyardNew wine was the most common drink, which had very limited alcohol content. But stronger wines were also produced, and could be watered down if needed. There were many more variations in taste, smell, and color than people are accustomed to today. Wines might be red, gold, pink, green, white, or such a dark red that it had a black appearance. There was also a variety of flavor–some were pleasant and sweet (usually reserved for special occasions), where others might be more bitter, or even vinegary.

winemakingSometimes the type of wine chosen was dependent on the season (and which bodily humors were at play), on age, or on the state of one’s health.  Melancholy was thought to be the dominant humour in autumn, which was “cold and dry.” The Secretum Secretorum advocated specific foods, drink, and activities to combat the negative effects. “Hot moist foods like chicken, lamb and sweet grapes should be eaten and fine old wines drunk, to ward of melancholy…Overmuch exercise and lovemaking are not recommended…but the heat and moisture of warm baths are helpful in keeping melancholy under control.”

beehivesOther labors of September included gathering honey and wax from beehives, which would then be moved to suitable locations for winter. Cows would be bred to ensure there would be young calves in the spring. Any cattle, or other livestock, that there were not enough resources to feed through the winter would be sold or butchered for meat. The meat would then be salted, smoked, or otherwise preserved in anticipation of the winter to come. At the end of September, on Michaelmas, lords and other debtors collected their rents and payments.


In this month’s Tales from the Green Valley, learn about plowing with oxen, sowing seeds, harrowing, baking bread, period clothing, caring for pigs, and making period food (pigeon, apple fritters, mushrooms).

Learn more about life in the Middle Ages by checking out the Medieval Monday Index.

 

Medieval Monday: Hygiene wasn’t so Bad

Medieval Hygiene Might Have Been Better Than You Think

by: Wu Mingren

The Medieval period is usually perceived as a time in Europe during which the greater part of the continent was in decline. In many aspects of Medieval society, the quality of life was inferior as compared to either the Roman period that preceded it, or the Renaissance that succeeded it. One such aspect is that of hygiene practices.

The Medieval Water Closet

The concept of hygiene habits during the Middle Ages may be said to be quite different from that which we understand today. This is reflected in the hygiene practices that the people of this age were performing in their everyday lives. For a start, indoor plumbing had not been invented yet, and people would normally use a privy (known also as an outhouse or a garderobe) when nature called. This crude toilet was often just a shack with a slab of wood over a hole in the ground. In castles, monasteries, and convents, these were narrow rooms for people to relieve themselves. In all fairness, these indoor privies were placed as far away as possible from the interior chambers, and usually had double doors to keep the unpleasant odours in.

Privy-in-Ypres-Tower

In addition to this, there were also chamber pots, which we kept under the bed, so that people could use them at night. One of the bizarre occupations that arose from this hygiene habit was that of the ‘Groom of the King’s Close Stool’. This job, held usually by the sons of nobility, involved assisting the king when he had to do his business, and cleaning up afterwards.

It goes without saying that the waste products had to go somewhere. In an age when sewers were non-existent, people simply made cesspits, which were essentially huge, deep holes dug in the ground, into which human waste was dumped. Ironically, perhaps, this practice was not hygienic, as the waste products exposed to the air created a suitable environment for the proliferation of bacteria that could spread diseases. As for the privies in castles, excrement would either fall into the moat, or released down the side of the castle’s walls. An interesting story about this medieval ‘sewage’ system comes from the 1203-1204 siege of Château Gaillard in Normandy, France. During the siege, the French forces succeeded in capturing the second wall by penetrating it via a unguarded toilet chute that led to a chapel.

Continue reading…

Want to know more about hygiene in medieval times. Check out this prior Medieval Monday post for more fun facts and insights. Click here.


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

Medieval Monday: Work and Adolescence

Screen Shot 2019-08-13 at 10.40.34 AMWORK AND ADOLESCENCE IN THE MIDDLE AGES (BY MELISSA SNELL)

Few medieval teenagers enjoyed a formal education as it was rare in the Middle Ages. As a result, not all adolescents went to school, and even those who did were not wholly consumed by learning. Many teens worked, and just about all of them played.

 

Working at Home

Teens in peasant families were most likely to work instead of attending school. Offspring could be an integral part of a peasant family’s income as productive workers contributing to the farming operation. As a paid servant in another household, frequently in another town, an adolescent could either contribute to the total income or simply cease using the family resources, thereby increasing the overall economic standing of those he left behind.

In the peasant household, children provided valuable assistance to the family as early as age five or six. This assistance took the form of simple chores and did not take up a great deal of the child’s time. Such chores included fetching water, herding geese, sheep or goats, gathering fruit, nuts, or firewood, walking and watering horses, and fishing. Older children were often enlisted to care for or at least watch over their younger siblings.

At the house, girls would help their mothers with tending a vegetable or herb garden, making or mending clothes, churning butter, brewing beer and performing simple tasks to help with the cooking. In the fields, a boy no younger than 9-years-old and usually 12 years or older, might assist his father by goading the ox while his father handled the plow.

As children reached their teens, they might continue to perform these chores unless younger siblings were there to do them, and they would most definitely increase their workloads with more demanding tasks. Yet the most difficult of tasks were reserved for those with the most experience; handling a scythe, for example, was something that took great skill and care, and it was unlikely for an adolescent to be given the responsibility of using it during the most pressing times of harvest.

Work for teenagers was not limited to within the family; rather, it was fairly common for a teen to find work as a servant in another household.

 

Service Work

In all but the poorest medieval households, it would not be surprising to find a servant of one variety or another. Service could mean part-time work, day labor, or working and living under the roof of an employer. The type of work that occupied a servant’s time was no less variable: there were shop servants, craft assistants, laborers in agriculture and manufacturing, and, of course, household servants of every stripe.

Although some individuals took on the role of servant for life, service was frequently a temporary stage in the life of an adolescent. These years of labor—often spent in another family’s home—gave teenagers the chance to save up some money, acquire skills, make social and business connections, and absorb a general understanding of the way society conducted itself, all in preparation for entry into that society as an adult.

A child might possibly enter service as young as age seven, but most employers sought older children to hire for their advanced skills and responsibility. It was far more common for children to take up positions as servants at age ten or twelve. The amount of work carried out by younger servants was necessarily limited; pre-adolescents are rarely if ever suited to heavy lifting or to tasks that require fine manual dexterity. An employer who took on a seven-year-old servant would expect the child to take some time learning his tasks, and he would probably start with very simple chores.

Continue reading…


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

Medieval Monday: Reconstructing Bread

Reconstructing Medieval Bread

by: Ken Albala

gm_00278701

An illuminated manuscript in the Getty’s collection features this illustration of bread baking from the 13th century. For the food historian, it presents a number of quandaries.

One figure works the dough with his bare arms in a large trough set on a trestle table, which is clear enough. The other maneuvers a long-handled peel, presumably setting the bread into the oven or removing it.

The illuminator had no doubt seen this procedure, but the details are somewhat confusing. On the floor beneath the oven there appears to be a flowing mound of dough of the same type as in the trough, though no one in their right mind would put dough on the ground. It must be a figurative depiction of the rocks or dirt beneath the oven.

More perplexing is the shape of the oven, which is extremely tall and narrow—a shape completely inefficient for baking bread, since the heat would rise to the top and the surface of the oven floor would be relatively cool. It would be too small to hold more than a few loaves. Bread ovens are generally more wide at the base than tall, more spherical and domelike.

An oven aperture is normally two-thirds the height of the entire oven. This allows for the maximum flow of heat, aiding heat retention. This oven door does seem about two-thirds the height, but again, the oven is much too tall to work properly. Moreover, the flames licking out at the top of the door reflect an early stage of heating, but not the point when the bread would be baking inside. Normally after the hot coals have heated the oven for a few hours, they are raked out and baking begins.

A pizza oven, with which you might be familiar, is a little different as a fire is often keptgm_00278701_detail burning at the rear of the oven to keep the temperature up and pizza bakes very quickly, unlike the slower heat of a bread oven. It is of course possible that it is an early kind of pizza or focaccia being baked—without tomatoes, of course, since those didn’t enter European cooking for centuries—but there’s nothing indicating that specifically here.

In all likelihood, the artist took some aesthetic liberties with the shape of the oven for dramatic effect or maybe just to fit the illustration neatly into the space on the page. In any case, reconstructing this procedure is largely a matter of guesswork. The earliest recipes for bread appear a few centuries after this illustration was drawn. In England we don’t get a decent description until Gervase Markham’s writings in the 17th century.

Continue reading…


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


For more insight into how bread was made in the middle ages check out this Medieval Monday Post that I researched and wrote on the topic. Click Here.