Medieval Monday: The Towerhouse

For this week’s Medieval Monday post, I thought I might share the information I’m currently researching for my work in progress. We are pretty familiar with castles through pictures, movies, and if we’ve been lucky, tours of the real thing. We also know something about ordinary living structures that peasants lived in (see related post). But there is another class of structure that is somewhat more elusive, and I’ve been doing some digging to find good information on it. I’m talking about the towerhouse.

Some classify these as castles, but they didn’t have all of the components of castles or keeps, nor were they ordinary houses. Still standing examples of them are rare, and any supporting structures that once existed around them even more so. Towerhouses were built by wealthy lords to be fortified homes. They were meant to protect the lord, his family, servants, guests, and valuables–mainly from would-be marauders rather than from organized armies. Such homes were typically constructed in remote areas that were difficult to get to and had some strategic importance. Sometimes towerhouses were built in isolation, but they might also have a town constructed around them, or they were expanded upon over time to become part of a larger castle. They became increasingly popular toward the end of the medieval period, but for my own research I’ve been most interested in the earliest examples.

While no two towerhouses were precisely alike, their 3-4 story design and layout followed a distinct pattern. On the outside they were plain and rectangular with very thick walls, occasionally towers were built into the four corners for added space. There was no forebuilding or outer defensive wall, and the ground floor didn’t have windows. The ground floor was primarily for storage, perhaps even keeping some animals, and often had its own separate entrance.

The first floor was common living space with a hall and a fireplace built into the wall. Service rooms might be on this floor as well. Winding staircases would have been built into the inside of the outer walls, connecting the first floor to the upper stories in a way that made entry difficult for anyone who might breech the entrance. The second floor had private space—perhaps another hall, and sleeping chambers. If there was a third (or even fourth) floor, it would have contained another hall and space to house a garrison in times of siege. For security reasons, only the very top floor or floors would have had windows to let in light. There would have also been battlements around the top where guards could watch for intruders and rain down arrows, stones, hot oil, or other projectiles as necessary to protect the home.

Some towerhouses had kitchens on the main floor, but kitchens were a constant fire hazard so often they were in a separate building. Though it would seem towerhouses were completely self-contained, there were by necessity additional structures to support it, such as stables, buildings related to farm work, or even additional living quarters since space inside the towerhouse was at a premium. Guests staying in the main house might have to share sleeping chambers, or even beds, but it provided security that the outer buildings could not. Furniture seems to have been kept to a minimum, and interiors differed in decor–some were more lavishly decorated than others.

As I continue to research these unique homes and learn about what daily life was like inside of them, I will update this post or even make a new one if I find enough to make one. I did find a video tour of an Irish towerhouse for your enjoyment. Some components of the layout are different than what my research indicated was typical, but then again, no to towerhouses were the same, so some variation is expected, especially between regions.


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Medieval Monday: Inns


Last week’s post was about medieval taverns, so it seemed natural to make this week’s about medieval inns as their services overlap somewhat. Like commercially run taverns, medieval inns catered more to the wealthy than the average person. They were equipped to accommodate not just lone travelers, but people like merchants with carts full of valuable wares, and nobles with their families and attendants. Whereas taverns offered basic, or even poor quality food, inns were prepared to host elaborate feasts as necessary for guests–including wine and other alcoholic drinks. Inns also provided temporary storage and stables where horses could be cared for.

Inns were actually big business, and they made a considerable profit. Innkeepers were wealthy and played a prominent role in the community—sometimes also serving in the local government, or acting as banking agents. Inns were often centers of trade as well, and investors were eager to back them, expecting a handsome profit in return.

The layout of a typical inn included a main hall, possibly a secondary common space, a kitchen, storage space, quarters for the innkeeper and his family, and of course, sleeping rooms for guests. It is hard for us to imagine today, but not all of the sleeping rooms were private or even lockable. Many were communal, with a number of guests sharing a room together, sometimes even the same beds. Private rooms became more popular as the period progressed.

However, not everyone could afford to stay at an inn, even when they were available and had enough room. Ale houses sometimes provided basic shelter for the night for a very limited number of people. Monasteries might run hostels (hospitals) where travelers could stay free or for a minimal fee, particularly on routes that were heavily traveled by pilgrims. When there was no inn, hostel, or other building for shelter, people might sleep outdoors. If this was necessary, travelers stayed together in groups for safety. Nobles might have the advantage of finding hospitality with a fellow noble living nearby. They would send a harbinger just ahead of them to make all of the arrangements.

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Medieval Monday: Taverns and Ale Houses


The medieval tavern is fixed in our imaginations as a warm and festive place, where one could while away a cold, wet night in relative comfort. An abundance of food, drink, friends, and entertainment made the tavern a perfect place to gather after a long, hard day of work or travel. But were medieval taverns really like this, or is this only a fantasy image that we perpetuate in books and movies?

It might surprise you that taverns weren’t necessarily in one particular building run by a tavern keeper. Drinking was a popular recreational activity for both men and women, though there was often little time for recreation. Going to a tavern might simply mean going to the home of a neighbor who had recently brewed a batch of cheap ale. There might in fact be a number of neighbors along the same street with fresh brews ready for drinking. They would post a sign outside their door when it was ready, and turn their homes into temporary taverns. People from the community would show up and pay for the ale they drank while socializing with each other. Gambling with dice or cards, fights, and alcohol-related accidents were fairly common. Court records from the time describe the worst of these incidents in gruesome detail.

Brewing could be practiced freely by anyone, but it was typically a job for women. Even poor women could brew since not much equipment beyond a large cauldron was needed. Barley, oats, wheat, and malt were all used in ale production. It was regulated by the manorial lords only in the sense that its quality was regularly tested, and those whose who made weak or inferior ale with badly measured ingredients were fined. Sometimes those fines were waived when the brewer was exceedingly poor.

Commercially established taverns, on the other hand, were more likely to serve wine than beer or ale, and catered to the wealthy rather than the average commoner. Some had their own vineyard or were closely connected with one. Simple foods would be offered, but very rarely lodging. (Inns were an entirely separate establishment that served food and alcohol as well.) Over time, taverns were enlarged to include multiple rooms and a large storage cellar. Despite the upscale clientele of taverns, gambling and fighting were typical, as was prostitution and sometimes other criminal activity.

One misconception is that these establishments were open long hours into the night. On the contrary, cities and towns, particularly large ones, had strict curfew laws in place, as well as laws regulating the carrying of weapons. These were designed to prevent problems and keep crime to a minimum. When the curfew bell was rung at dusk, it was time to close up for the night and clear the streets. Anyone out after dark was required to have both a light and a very good reason for being there! These laws were enforced, so those who owned commercial taverns or operated ale houses from their homes either had to kick everyone out, or be prepared to accommodate them for the entire night.

When it comes to writing fiction, most authors don’t restrict the nightlife of their worlds so tightly. But unless you’re writing historical fiction, that doesn’t really matter. Your world, your rules! Still, it is interesting to know how things were really done back in the day. Also, though I didn’t find any specific information pertaining to small villages or rural areas, I would imagine they were less regulated than areas with larger populations.

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Medieval Monday: The Labors of March

plowingWarmer March weather meant it was time to finally put most indoor tasks aside and get out into the fields. There weren’t a great variety of tasks associated with March, mainly because preparing the fields for plowing and planting was such an onerous chore that began at dawn and ended at dusk.  Getting the spring grain into the ground was one of the most important tasks of the season.

Medieval farmers generally had a three field system, where each season one of the fields was left unplanted. But leaving it fallow didn’t mean there wasn’t any work involved. The fallow field would have to be plowed several times during the year to keep the weeds under control and at the same time enrich the earth with organic matter. Every time the field was plowed, new weeds would grow, and livestock would be sent out to graze on it, with the added benefit that they would fertilize it with manure as they went.

plowing-and-pruning-in-marchPruning vines and trees continued in March, as did calving. By the end of March, some of the calves were ready to be weaned, which meant milk became available once again. Cows whose calves had been weaned were milked twice per day. The same was true of sheep. Another important food source which returned to the medieval diet in March was eggs. Hens require at least 12 hours of daylight to produce, which meant they began laying around the spring equinox at the end of March, and ceased production around the autumn equinox at the end of September.

This week you can also enjoy another episode of “Tales from the Green Valley” which focuses on what daily life would have been like during the month of March. As I watched, I was reminded that even though certain jobs took priority in specific seasons, many of them happened to some degree all year round. In this video, you will see in action some of the tasks that have been mentioned in past Medieval Monday posts, such as threshing and winnowing, milling wheat into flour, sending pigs out to forage, playing games, and brewing ale and beer for every day drinking. You’ll get to see some period recipes being made as well (like what they did with all that dried, salted fish saved up for winter). Again, it’s worth setting aside half an hour to watch this BBC production. It makes for excellent research and really sends you back in time!

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Medieval Monday: The Green Valley in February

Today’s post is actually a video that I really think you’re going to enjoy! It’s half an hour long, but well worth the time to watch! A small group of historians and archaeologists restored and brought back to life an abandoned village in Wales, re-creating over an entire year what life was like in the early 1600’s. This would be considered the Renaissance period, but the humble agricultural lifestyle really hadn’t changed a whole lot. Much of this would be applicable to the medieval period as well.

This episode is not the start of the series, but it is the video from February, so you can see what would have been happening at this time of year hundreds of years ago. Really, really fascinating stuff. I encourage you to take the time to watch. I will include one episode each month going forward until the year’s worth of videos run out. Aside from doing this type of thing yourself, I can think of no better way to really put yourself back in time, to see and vicariously experience life from another era. Hope you enjoy it!

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Medieval Monday: What’s to Drink?

Much of what we drink today on a daily basis would not have been available in the Middle Ages. Coffee wasn’t brought to Europe until the 1600s, and was met with suspicion—even sometimes condemned by the local Church. And though Britain in particular is now known for his proud heritage of drinking tea, it was not introduced until the 16th century, and did not gain popularity until the 17th.  Anything that required refrigeration was difficult to keep, and only consumed fresh, when available. So what did medieval people drink on a daily basis?

drinking-brawlThere is a persistent rumor that water was avoided due to widespread contamination of waterways by pollutants and bacteria. This is actually not the case. While plain water was certainly nothing exciting enough to sing songs about, it was regularly drunk by itself, or used to water down other drinks. Even though they had no concept of what bacteria were, medieval people were smart enough to distinguish fresh from polluted water, and carefully avoided the latter. Large cities in fact invested considerable wealth into reliable water systems that would bring in fresh water from springs or other sources. Waterways used for industry were avoided as drinking sources, as were stagnant or marshy waters. Rainwater was thought to be the healthiest water, and it was easy enough for anyone to collect. There were instances when medieval physicians might advise against water, such as when eating a meal. Wine was recommended instead, as water was thought to “chill the stomach.” Ironically, a 15th century source advises pregnant women to beware of cold water, which was thought to be harmful to the fetus, and drink wine instead.

Some juices were consumed, particularly where (and when) fruits were readily available. Milk was another option, produced not just by cows, but goats and sheep as well. Even most peasants owned one or more of these animals. In spite of this, fresh drinking milk was surprisingly uncommon. There was no easy way to keep milk from spoiling, and it was only available during the times of year when animals were producing. For the most part milk was used to make other foods like butter and cheese. Milk to drink was primarily given to the sick, young children, the elderly, and those who were too poor to buy meat. Peasants did drink whey, buttermilk, milk that had been soured or diluted with water, and almond milk.

Alcoholic beverages were the preferred choice. They were considered to have nutritive value and aid digestion. They were also the easiest drinks to preserve for relatively long periods of time. However, alcoholic drinks in the Middle Ages were somewhat different than those we are accustomed to today. What type of alcohol you drank largely depended on where you lived, and what you could afford.

brewing-aleIn the northernmost regions of Europe where grapes did not grow, most of the alcohol consumed were beer or ale, both of which were much weaker than the modern day versions, and might be further watered down if desired. Ale was the most common, brewed with barley but not hops. “Small Ale” (or “Small Beer”) had extremely low alcohol content and was actually considered an important source of hydration and nutrition. It was a cloudy drink, consumed fresh, and would have been drunk on a daily basis by just about everyone, even youth.  Ale with higher alcohol content would have been saved for recreational purposes due to the intoxicating effects. Beer was at first brewed with “gruit,” a mix of various herbs, then gradually with hops as brewers figured out the proper ratio to use. Hops was a better preservative, allowing beer to be stored for 6 months or longer, whereas beer brewed with gruit needed to be consumed more quickly. Wine was only drunk by those who could afford to import it.

By comparison, in Southern Europe where grapes were plentiful, wine was the drink consumed on a daily basis and was considered to be both prestigious and healthy. Red wine was thought to “aid digestion, generate good blood, and brighten the mood.”

pressing-wineLike beers and ales, the quality of wine varied greatly, with that made of second and third pressings the lowest quality with the least alcohol content. These would have been the equivalent of “small ale”—a drink consumed daily by just about everyone, and even in large quantities, without concerns about intoxication. The poorest peasants might have to settle for watered down vinegar as their daily drink. Fine, expensive wines with much higher alcohol content would have been made from the first pressings of grapes. Such wine might also be mulled or spiced—also considered to be quite healthy. Red wine would be combined with sugar and spices such as nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, pepper, and cloves among others.

Wines might also be made from fruits other than grapes, including berries. Perry and cider were popular in northern regions were pears and apples could be grown. Mulberry, blackberry, plumb, and pomegranate wines were some of the different varieties enjoyed.

Mead was another drink available, and could be made to contain alcohol or not.  Made from honey, water, and yeast, the alcoholic version could be as weak as small ale, or rival strong wines. The taste varied locally, as most regions had their own traditions and recipes. Different sources of honey also produced different flavors of mead. Spices and fruits might be added. Some recipes called for grain mash, or for hops to give it a beer-like flavor. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, mead was most commonly used for medicinal purposes rather than as a table drink.

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Medieval Monday: Labors of February

B.11.4, ff.i verso-ii rectoFebruary’s labors varied depending on where in Europe one lived. In the northernmost regions, where the ground was still frozen and additional snow and frost was anticipated, tasks continued to focus basic necessities like chopping wood and anything that could be done indoors. A common image in medieval art for February showed people warming themselves by the fire, or spending time in church.

feb-labors-spreading-manureHowever, in European regions further south, it was already time to start field work. Manure and marl (a soil mixture of clay and lime) could be spread on fields, and furrowing and planting would begin for early growing grains like barley. Larger fields would be turned and furrowed with plows pulled by horses or oxen. Households with smaller fields and gardens did the same back-breaking work by hand with spades. These were made of wood, with just the tip of the spade fitted with an iron piece referred to as a “shoe”. Spade handles varied in length, from short to long.

Willow was also planted at this time of year, and once grown was used to make wattle for fences and housing, or anything else that required wicker. For those keeping animals, February was the time when calves and lambs were born and needed to be cared for through the remaining cold weather. By the time they were weaned (usually 4-6 weeks later) the meadows would be green again and ready for grazing.

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