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!


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Medieval Monday: The World’s Oldest Secular Norse Song

Listen To The World’s Oldest Known Secular Norse Song From Codex Runicus – A Medieval Manuscript Written In Runes

Codex Runicus, the medieval manuscript dating from circa 1300 AD, comprises around 202 pages composed in runic characters. Known for its content of the Scanian Law (Skånske lov) – the oldest preserved Nordic provincial law, the codex is also touted to be one of the very rare specimens that have its runic texts found on vellum (parchment made from calfskin). And interestingly enough, as opposed to Viking Age usage of runes, each of these ‘revivalist’ runes corresponds to the letters of the Latin Alphabet.

Now while a significant section of the Codex Runicus covers the Scanian Ecclesiastical Law (pertaining to Danish Skåneland), the manuscript also chronicles the reigns of early Danish monarchs and the oldest region along the Danish-Swedish border. But most interestingly, the last page of the codex also contains what can be defined as the oldest known musical notations written in Scandinavia, with their non-rhythmic style on a four-line staff.

One such Norse song verse, more famously known in modern Denmark as the first two lines of the folk song Drømde mig en drøm i nat (‘I dreamt a dream last night’), is presented in the video below, performed under the tutelage of renowned Old Norse expert – the ‘Cowboy Professor’ Dr. Jackson Crawford.

Read the full article on realmofhistory.com



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Medieval Monday: Lighting

With electricity still far in the future, Medieval lighting came in the form of fire. Rush lights were the simplest and cheapest form of lighting, though they weren’t particularly bright. Wild rushes were gathered, dried, then stripped of their skins. They were then soaked in animal fat, which left the rush itself to serve as a wick that could be lit. As many as needed were placed around the home to give off light.

Candles were the next step up from rush lighting—they were brighter and lasted longer than rushes.  Tallow candles were the most common type. These were made from tallow (animal fat) that was boiled and strained, turning creamy white once it had cooled and hardened again. The best type to use was from sheep, the next best from cows. Fiber strands were twisted into wicks that were dipped into the melted tallow over and over again until the candle shape was gradually formed. These types of wicks were not like modern ones that completely burn up as the wax melts away. They had to be trimmed at regular intervals. Tallow candles were easy to produce, but there were some drawbacks. The process of making, and burning, tallow candles was very smelly. These candles were also drippy and produced a lot of smoke that left soot stains on everything around them.

Though tallow candles could be made at home when animals were slaughtered, they were only made in large quantities by chandlers. The making of tallow candles and tallow soaps was often a side business of butchers. Though their products were in high demand, these shops were widely avoided due to the unpleasant odors they produced.

The nobility and the church had access to a different type of candle that was more expensive and of far better quality than tallow—beeswax. They burned the brightest of all the candle types, and lasted longer. They were produced in a similar way than tallow, but did not smell and burned clean. Just as making tallow candles were a natural side business for butchers, beeswax candles were often made by bee keepers. Since these types of candles were favored by the nobility, and burned exclusively by the church, making beeswax candles was a highly profitable business.

Oil lamps were also used for lighting, but only in southern regions of Europe where oil was easy to come by, and the weather was warm enough that it would not solidify.

Some candles could also be used as clocks. They would be made to a specific thickness, and the person watching them would have to know how far down they would burn in a certain amount of time.

Larger than candles or lamps were torches, which could be fixed to walls, carried, or staked into the ground. They were typically made from branches or bound sticks made of green or wet wood that would not quickly burn down. Rags would be bound on one end, then soaked in something flammable like pitch, oil, animal fat, or tree sap. Like tallow, torches did not burn clean and had an odor that varied depending on which flammable substance was used. Torches gave off a lot of light by comparison to candles, but had to be replaced often as they burned out.

I’ve included a short video that talks about medieval chandlers and the process of making candles. Some of the information is repetitive, but it adds some nice visuals. Enjoy!


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Medieval Monday: The Outlaw

Here’s another episode of Medieval Lives with Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. He talks about the medieval outlaw–a topic that has a lot more surprises than I expected. Not all “outlaws” were bandits and murderers, and there was a fair amount of bureaucracy involved (not to mention strange and horrendous punishments). You won’t want to miss this one!


Learn more about the daily life in Middle Ages by browsing previous posts in the Medieval Monday Index.

Medieval Monday: Saving the Past

As so many medieval historical sites and artifacts have been lost to time, one of them has recently been brought back from oblivion thanks to The Friends of Friendless Churches! Check out this article from medievalists.net and see the pictures. The transformation is really incredible!


English medieval church restored to beauty after being abandoned for over 50 years

A medieval church dating back to the 13th century is reopening after an impressive campaign led by The Friends of Friendless Churches to restore it.

Located in East Hatley, Cambridgeshire, St Denis dates to 1217, with much of the surviving medieval elements coming from the 14th century. The long history of the church includes renovations done in the 17th and 19th centuries, but gradually it fell in to disrepair and as the cost of repairs couldn’t be met, St. Denis was abandoned in 1961 in favour of a new church.

Aerial shot of the Church of St Denis in East Hadley – photo by Ben Greenhalgh / The Friends of Friendless Churches

Continue reading and see more images: http://www.medievalists.net/2018/09/english-medieval-church-restored-to-beauty-after-being-abandoned-for-over-50-years/


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Medieval Monday: The Philosopher

It’s the beginning of the month, so here’s another episode of Medieval Lives with Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. He talks about the medieval philosopher, which was really more of a scientist or alchemist, and also about the medieval physician. Were they really as backward thinking as we suppose? Or were the seeds that eventually grew into the age of Enlightenment planted during this era? There is some fascinating stuff in this episode, including why people in the Middle Ages were so preoccupied with the idea of changing other metals into gold–it’s not for the reason you might think!


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Medieval Monday: The Knight

It’s the beginning of the month, so here’s another episode of Medieval Lives with Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. He talks about the evolving role of knights in medieval society and the emergence of a code of chivalry. Sadly legend and reality are two very different things! There is also an interesting section on horses and how they were trained to be used as weapons on the battlefield. Additionally, he talks about coats of arms and learns what his own might look like. It’s actually pretty funny. So enjoy this episode of Medieval Lives.


Learn more about the daily life in Middle Ages by browsing previous posts in the Medieval Monday Index.