Medieval Monday: The Labors of December

winter-scene-2In the cold days of December, the fields were finally quiet, with the ground too frozen to work. Animals were taken care of, to ensure they would not only survive the harsh months to come, but that they would be healthy on spring’s arrival. After all, they would be needed to work. In bad weather, animals would need to be brought indoors and fed straw mixed with other nutrients such as corn stubble, or pea pods.  Other outdoor work consisted of mostly repair and reconstruction. Timber was cut, and fences and walls mended. If autumn rains had eroded the banks of the mill pond, they would need to be fixed as well.

cooking2

 

Most work had to be done indoors. Carving wood became a common winter activity–people made useful items like bowls, spoons, and cups. They repaired farming tools and household equipment. Baskets, nets, and harnesses were woven out of rushes or reeds. Women spent a good amount of time spinning thread, weaving, and sewing–making new garments and mending torn ones.

Women would also be carefully managing supplies of food; doing their best to feed hungry families even though the fresh foods gathered or harvested in autumn were now beginning to run out. Most peasant families were surviving on bread and pottage. The kettle was kept going over the fire day after day, the culinary monotony broken up by subtle changes to what was thrown into the pot. Common ingredients would have been beans, leeks, lentils, peas, onions, and herbs like parsley. Meat stock might be used for added nutrition, and possibly salted meat or dried fish on occasion. Eggs, cheese, and butter rounded out the winter diet on days when fasting wasn’t required.


Below I have two videos to share. One is very short and shows how bowls were carved using traditional medieval tools. He makes this look so easy, but I’m sure it takes a lot of practice to learn this skill. The other is December’s Tales from the Green Valley in which the team covers the topics of making preparations for Christmas, building a wood storage hovel, sewing, clothing, threshing peas, making mince pies and other Christmas foods, and decorating for Christmas. Some of the Christmas traditions (like the Yule log) are from a bit beyond the medieval period, but many of the other things they describe would have been the same. Enjoy!

 

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Medieval Monday: Boots, Shoes, and Walking Medieval

Early in the period, footwear was still influenced by the Romans and nomadic European tribes that came before. They were largely stiff, poor quality, stitched leather wraps with laces to hold them to the ankle—not much better than walking barefoot. In colder regions these might have been lined with fur for warmth. As the Middle Ages progressed, and trade increased, higher quality leather became available, and the crusades exposed Europe to Byzantine styles. Shoe and boot makers might be called cordwainers (12th century on) or chaucers, and as was the case with most other medieval trades, they were regulated by guilds. Cobblers, however, did not make brand new footwear. They were only permitted to repair shoes that had been made by someone else.

The types of shoes worn would be different depending on your trade, where you lived, and your social status. They might be made of leather, wool, fur, or wood. Peasants often wore poor quality knee-high boots that laced up the front. English peasants also wore a heavy shoe made of undressed leather with the hair on the outside. They were called revelins or slops. The nobility wore a high quality close-toed slipper, the design of which changed with the fashions of the day. Early on, they remained relatively plain, but in the high and late Middle Ages they may have been elongated, pointed, and/or decorated with elaborate designs. Leather shoes could be stamped, tooled, or decorated with cutouts. Shoes were not always necessary, however. As hose became fashionable for men, soles were often sewn directly into the hose.

Turnshoes were the most popular type of medieval shoe, particularly in the northern regions. These ankle-high shoes had a triangular flap that folded over the ankle and stayed attached with a latchet or thongs.  They were very plain, with no embellishments and flat soles. These types of shoes were made inside out, then soaked in a bucket of water until they were soft enough to turn them the right way. This would have been done very carefully to prevent over-stretching the leather or tearing it. Once completely dry, the shoe would be stiff again. It might have a sole added at this stage, but it could also be worn without one.

In the 14th century, clogs or pattens also became common. They were an overshoe that offered protection from wet and muddy streets. The bottoms were made of wood or cork, with a leather strap to hold them to the foot. Some had a hinged heel to make walking easier. Techniques that allowed a heavier sole to be attached to a regular shoe were not developed until the 15th century. Stacked heels did not come about until after the Renaissance period.

While some shoes were tailored specifically to the wearer’s feet, ready-made shoes in several different sizes were also available as the trade began to boom. There was little to no distinction between a right and left shoe such as there is today. Shoes might have been padded for comfort, or to correct the fit as the material stretched with wear.  Padding would have been made from materials like wool, fur, hair, or moss.

One of the most interesting aspects of this topic is that medieval shoes required a different style of walking than we are accustomed to today. To comfortably wear a medieval style shoe, one would need to point their feet forward, rather than at an angle, take a shorter stride, and land on the front of the foot rather than the heel. Roland Warzecha, who teaches historical European combat fighting, made a video explaining the body mechanics of how medieval people walked. It is less than 7 minutes long, but very informative!

 


Want to know more about the Middle Ages? Check out the Medieval Monday Index for additional topics.

 

Medieval Monday: More Labors of November

November was a busy month in the medieval world. Last week’s post focused mainly on the fall slaughter and preservation of meat for the coming months, but there was much more to be done. Garlic and beans were sown in November–typically around the 20th, which was St. Edmund’s day–but the heavy labors of the field were largely complete. It was time to take on other onerous, but necessary  tasks such as digging ditches and trenches, and cleaning out the farm yard and latrines. Animal and human waste was spread as a fertilizer for gardens and fields. Walls would be checked and repaired in November, and molehills removed.

beehives2Beehives were given attention to make sure that the bees were getting enough nourishment to survive the coming winter. Young hives were in particular danger of starving since they’d had less time to store up food for themselves. According to Thomas Tusser (English farmer and poet), the weight of the hives should be checked and the bees fed if needed. “Go look to thy bees; if the hive be too light, set water and honey with rosemary dight. Which set in a dish full of sticks in the hive, from danger of famine, yea save them alive.”  

sheep-folds2As long as the winter didn’t become too harsh, many of the sheep could be held back from the fall slaughter. Sheep were able to live on terrain that was unsuitable for other animals. They had no trouble grazing in areas that were rocky and too difficult to clear for agricultural use. Sheep could also be used to crop the farming fields short, fertilizing them with droppings as they went. As the weather grew colder, their thick wool helped to protect them, as well as sheep folds, made out of wooden hurdles. These were woven panels, typically made out of hazel wood, which could be moved around as needed. They kept the sheep enclosed and blocked much of the wind at the same time.  If the weather turned too much for them to survive outdoors, or there was a shortage of food, the sheep could always be slaughtered later to provide an immediate source of fresh meat.

sheep-folds-3Like the bees, sheep required special attention in autumn, however. There were certain illnesses they were likely to contract, such as sheep scab and liver-fluke. Liver-fluke was caused by the sheep eating snails or mildew off of fallen leaves. Both illnesses were cured by applying tar–an important substance for medieval peasants to have on hand for a variety of uses, such as keeping the drafts out of homes, and making ships water tight.

 

Medieval Monday: The Labors of November

butcheringThe Anglo Saxons referred to November as the “blood month,” because it was time to begin slaughtering those animals which would not be kept through the winter. The traditional time for butchering animals was Martinmas (November 11th), though the butchering and processing of meat could continue through January depending on the weather. While some meat would be eaten fresh, it was important to have a supply of beef, pork, chevon (goat), and mutton (sheep) to last throughout the winter months. The preservation of meat was a laborious task. The flesh would have to be soaked in brine for days before it could be hung to dry and smoked. Meat might also be pickled, dried, or salted. Bacon in particular could be rubbed with spices and honey before it was smoked. Every part of the animal was used for something. The hides were used for making leather and parchment, hooves for gelatin, and bone and horns had a myriad of uses. Offal, blood, and bone marrow had to be eaten right away, and were turned into seasonal treats. Sausage and puddings were fall delicacies, providing a use for blood and organ meats. They were cooked with onions, garlic, and a variety of spices that made them especially tasty.

cookingWhen the fresh meat had run out, it was back to dried, salted meats, which weren’t especially nice to eat. Beef and mutton had to be simmered for a very long time to reduce the salt content enough to make them palatable. Bacon would be added directly to pottage, a thick stew that included vegetables, and grains like barley. Pottage was a staple food, often left cooking in a kettle over the fire for days on end, with the family simply adding water and ingredients to it as needed to keep it going.

Pork was the most popular preserved meat, especially for peasants. Pigs were easy to keep because they could forage for themselves, and after slaughter, their meat absorbed less of the preserving salt, helping it to retain more of its moisture. The leftover fat from slaughtering was used as lard, and also for the making of tallow candles. These would be vital to have for the dark, cold months ahead.

fattening-pigsThose pigs that weren’t being butchered (or at least not yet) were still being fattened in November. Acorns, beechnuts, hawes, hazelnuts, and other foods could still be actively foraged or collected for later feedings. But pigs weren’t the only ones out foraging for the last of nature’s bounty. Wild berries and apples, nuts, plums, and hips were great sources of nutrition—they just had to be collected. Coleworts (kohlrabi, cabbage, turnips) could also be harvested and stored someplace dark and cold. Sometimes they would simply be left in the ground and covered with a thick layer of straw. When needed, they could be uncovered, gathered, and eaten.

collecting-reedsNovember was also a time to collect reeds and osiers. These would be cured to use as thatch for roofs, or turned into baskets and nets for later use. Rushes became candle wicks, and nettles could be used instead of flax to make a durable thread. Bracken could be used as winter bedding for cattle. Firewood had to be collected as well, since much would be needed for heat and other purposes. There were restrictions, however. Dead wood could be gathered from the ground, or pruned from trees. People were not allowed to cut down live trees to use as firewood—this was a way to ensure that forested areas would continue to be a resource for many seasons to come.


Enjoy another Tales from the Green Valley. Fair warning, some may find the images in this episode disturbing as they slaughter, butcher, and prepare one of the farm pigs just as it would have been done hundreds of years ago. 

In this month’s episode: Finishing the cow shed, making wattle and daub walls, pig slaughter, butchering, and cooking. Gathering medlars, scrubbing a table with salt, roof thatching.

 

Medieval Monday: Hallowmas–Saints and Sinners

Happy All Hallows Eve! As mentioned in last week’s post, if we were living in the medieval era today, tonight would be the start of Hallowmas—an important three-day event on the medieval calendar. Tonight we might be attempting to mock or scare evil spirits with costumes, lighting bonfires, or souling for the sake of those already departed. We would sincerely believe that by giving bread to the poor, we could redeem a lost soul from the fires of hell. On this night, there is a sense that the veil between life and death is at its thinnest, and yet there is nothing to fear from the darkness, because Christ has already claimed victory over death. Tomorrow, All Saints Day, is where the celebration of Hallowmas really gets serious. It is a time to honor the martyrs and saints of the Church, both known and unknown, many of whom died gruesome deaths for the sake of their faith.

St. Michael battling a demon

St. Michael battling a demon

All Saints Day was an occasion for feasting and sometimes great tournaments. It was both a holiday and a holy day, where special ceremonies and masses were held. Prayers to the saints were encouraged in order to help one’s journey through this life and into the next. On the night of All Saints Day, bells were rung. Their melodious tones were thought to bring joy to the poor souls suffering in purgatory—a concept first accepted as a doctrine of the Church in the 1200s that did much to shape medieval beliefs about the afterlife. In purgatory, the souls of “moderately bad sinners” would remain for a time of purification before they would continue heavenward. Purgatory would not permanently close until the very end of time, when “angels would rouse the dead from their graves to be judged by God,” and the souls within it would finally gain admittance to heaven, or be sent to hell, for all eternity.

death-and-burialFrom All Saints Day, the transition was made to All Souls Day on November 2nd. Again, there was feasting, but the focus shifted from the martyrs and saints to ALL of the faithful departed. Death was a very central theme of medieval life, which was always full of uncertainty. The child mortality rate is estimated to have been somewhere between 30-50%. Conditions were highly unsanitary as there was no understanding of germs, nor of their direct connection to disease. As such, medicines were largely ineffective, and most injuries and diseases could not be properly treated. Any minor ailment (by our standards) could end in death. The additional risks of famine and war were all too real, and public punishments were often physically brutal. It is no wonder that the medieval mind was so fixated on what would happen beyond death, and beliefs on the subject shaped the attitudes and culture of everyday life.

On All Souls Day, prayers were specifically directed toward helping those deceased who had not yet moved from purgatory to heaven. Medieval Christians were taught that the fate of a person’s soul was not only related to the manner in which they lived, but also the manner in which they died. Most hoped to die in bed, with a priest at hand to administer the Last Rites—the final forgiveness of their sins. A sudden, or “bad” death, was something to fear, since dying with unconfessed sin would likely lead to a long stay in purgatory, or worse.

Angels delivering souls from purgatory

Angels delivering souls from purgatory

All Souls Day provided reassurance for those too poor to pay indulgences, either for themselves, or on behalf of their deceased loved ones. It was common for people to visit the graves of their relatives and friends, and later on in the Middle Ages, candles or even bonfires might also be lit there. In Eastern Europe, it was not unusual for people to eat meals at the grave sites as well, though this was frowned upon by the Church. Men dressed in black would walk through the village or city streets, ringing hand bells, and reminding people to help those in purgatory with their prayers.

Medieval Monday: Hallowmas (Halloween)

“Soul soul for a souling cake
I pray you, missis, for a souling cake
Apple or pear, plum or cherry
Anything to make us merry…”

halloween1Halloween is coming! Now a fun night for costumes and treats, many say its origins go back to the pagan festival of Samhain, meaning “summer’s end.” It marked the end of the harvest, and the beginning of winter. According to the Celts, this was the time when “the veils between this world and the Otherworld were believed to be at their thinnest: when the spirits of the dead could most readily mingle with the living once again.” They believed that Saman, the Lord of the Dead, would come that night to take up into the afterlife the souls of those who had died that year. Like many pagan traditions, the holiday was eventually Christianized, and remained a time to honor the dead, especially the saints. All-Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day together were referred to as Hallowmas–a three day event beginning the night of October 31st.

medieval-images-of-deathSome of our current Halloween traditions have their roots in the Middle Ages. People would dress in costumes intended to scare away any dark spirits that happened to be wandering about. Bells were rung, and there were processions and bonfires to scare away witches, ghosts, and evil spirits. Children and the poor went door to door, offering prayers for the household’s deceased relatives in exchange for small “soul” cakes.

soul-cakesThe video I included today is by Claire Ridgway, founder of TheAnneBoleynFiles and the Tudor Society. She demonstrates how to make “Soul Cakes” using a traditional Tudor recipe (which she reads from so you can hear the original version). If you’re feeling adventurous in the kitchen this week, or want to bring something interesting to that Halloween party you’ve been invited to, give it a shot!

 

(Did you miss last week’s post on medieval money? It’s not too late–just click to read.)

Medieval Monday: Timber!

I’ve been binge watching old episodes of Barnwood Builders (diy network), which follows a group of men who reclaim old decaying log cabins from the 1700s-1800s.  They restore the original logs and rebuild the cabins so they can be turned into new log cabins, giving life to a piece of our history that is rapidly disappearing.  It is interesting to learn about the history of pioneer building techniques, how to cut notches and chink, how to build a roof, etc.  (And 68 year old Kentucky native Johnny Jett cracks me up.)

Medieval construction was also largely timber based, and some of what the pioneers did hadn’t changed all that much from medieval times.  I found this video that shows how trees were transformed into wood beams with nothing but hand tools.  Since I’m always fascinated by the daily life aspect of the Middle Ages, I enjoy videos like these–though I have to say, I cringed a little at the obvious safety issue of repeatedly swinging an ax toward your body.  At any rate, this is the kind of detail that helps me with my world building when I’m writing.