Medieval Monday: Horses

medieval-horseHorses were extremely important to medieval society. Generally they were smaller than modern day horses, and were of different builds and kinds—some no longer in existence today. The concept of “breed” had not yet come about, but horses were classified by “type” depending on what sort of work they would be used for. The three main types were chargers, palfreys, and sumpters, with specific sub-classifications under each.

horse-plowing-fieldSumpters were used in the fields to pull plows for planting, gradually replacing oxen as the animal of choice. They were powerful draft horses, not particularly beautiful, but the least expensive. Still more costly to keep than oxen or donkeys, they gained favor because they could work longer and faster. When they weren’t being used for field labor, they could be put to use pulling carts and wagons, or hired out to those who needed the use of a horse but didn’t own one.

Palfreys were ideal for riding, particularly over long distances. They had a particular gait (the amble) which was comfortable and fast. It could be maintained for long periods of time, making travel easier for both the horse and rider. Some palfreys were in such demand, only the wealthy could afford them.

horses-in-battleChargers were, of course, those horses trained for tournaments and warfare. However, knights rarely rode their war horses. On the way to battle, these horses would be led by the knight’s squire, while the knight rode a less valuable horse. This would help save the charger’s strength for the coming fight. Some chargers were less valuable than others—depending on the type, they might also be used for more everyday uses, such as general riding, hunting, or even to carry packs, though they were never used to pull carts.

When they were not working, horses were generally kept in stables with stalls large enough for the animal to lie down. Peasant families might keep work horses in barns along with their other animals, or pasture them in a fallow field, providing a simple wooden shelter the horse could use in bad weather. As much as possible, horses were left to graze on fresh grasses. When those were not available, they were fed primarily oats and hay, sometimes beans and bran. There was also something called “horse bread” which was a baked mixture of peas and beans. How much a horse was fed depended largely on how hard it was being asked to work on a daily basis.

horse-healedHorses typically wore iron shoes, often with raised areas on the heel portion to improve traction on slick and muddy surfaces. This type of shoe is not one still used today. Farriers—those who shoed horses as their trade—were also responsible for the care of sick horses.

Horses were regularly groomed with combs and brushes, bathed by hand, and wiped down and dried with a rough type of cloth that made their coats shiny. No doubt the horses of the nobility received a better grooming regimen than the workhorses plowing fields. Though horses were the primary source of medieval transportation, only wealthy households could afford to keep a stable full of horses. Most only kept the number of horses they could afford to care for year ‘round, and had a practical need for on a daily basis.



Medieval Monday: Travel

travelTravel in medieval times was a challenge to say the least. In and between rural areas, there might not be more than a narrow, beaten earth path. Overly wet or snowy weather could make such roads impassable for long stretches of time. Bandits, weather, and wild animals all added to the hazards of the road. Though main trade routes were larger and better maintained (better guarded as well) they were far from comfortable. Wagon tires were primitive, made from flexible sapling wood, and transporting anything heavy was fraught with difficulties. When possible, pack animals were used by merchants who needed to get their goods from village to village. Travel by sea was no safer than travel by foot or beast, and the sea claimed many a historic figure, including the son of King Henry I.

heraldic-regaliaHowever, history shows that in spite of the dangers and discomfort of travel, it remained an important part of medieval life. Travel was just about the only way to get news from one place to another. Couriers might be entrusted with critical and private messages, while those meant to be disseminated among large populations were given out by public proclamation, or announced through church sermons. Celebratory events of historic significance, and sometimes propaganda, were immortalized in songs and poems, which spread quickly and continued to live on in people’s memories. Since most could not read or write, verbal person-to-person communication was the most effective. Some forms of communication were visual as well. Certain types of clothing bore special meaning that would have been understood by those who came in contact with the wearer. Banners, coats of arms, specific patterns of color, and badges were also visual forms of communication.

pilgrimsBut there was another important reason to travel, aside from the need to spread news, buy and sell wares, or the desire to see new places and people. That was a spiritual one. Pilgrimages to holy sites, whether small local shrines, to Rome, or to the ultimate site of Jerusalem, were encouraged by the Church. The most important pilgrimages were those made to places that were directly connected with the birth, life, crucifixion, or resurrection of Jesus. Christians would travel in large groups to such destinations for greater safety on the road. When such an arduous journey was impossible, one found closer pilgrimage sites associated with martyrs, the saints, important relics, or visions of Mary. It was believed that traveling to such places was an act of penance that might lead to the forgiveness of sins, and brought about a greater chance of going to heaven. Shrines were thought to be places of power, where supernatural intervention could occur for those most desperately in need of help. Some shrines were known for specific powers, like curing sickness. Pilgrims who made it to sites of significance collected or wore badges as a sort of souvenir, and proof that they had made a significant spiritual journey.

A medieval souvenir pilgrim badge from Amiens Cathedral

A medieval souvenir pilgrim badge from Amiens Cathedral


Medieval Monday: Pottery

Ok, yes, I know it is now Tuesday. The last few days have been very busy and time got away from me. A day late, but hopefully no less interesting, here is my Medieval Monday post for the week.

potter-at-wheelI mentioned last week that one task medieval people could do in January was dig for clay along river beds, which was used for pottery and tiles among other things. At least in the early medieval period, making pottery was mainly a rural activity. It was easiest to set up a workshop and kiln at or near the source of the materials needed. Large supplies of not just clay, but sand, wood to fuel the kiln, and water were needed. Access to a road or boats for transportation was also required.

potter-at-wheel-2Pottery making was typically handed down as a family industry among the peasantry. Though pottery was valued as a necessity of daily life, pottery makers were one of the lowest regarded craftsmen. It was often a secondary job, done after work in the fields was completed. Tools were simple, including combs, knives, and stamps to add decoration. Wheels were not commonly used until after the 12th century. In the mid and late Middle Ages, pottery making became a larger industry and was also done in towns and cities. Pottery began to include other materials such as wood and metal. Each region’s pottery had its own unique, easily distinguishable characteristics.

I found an in interesting video of medieval-style pottery being made for your interest and enjoyment. He shows a really great piece that was apparently made for washing hands that I’d never heard of.

Medieval Monday: Labors of January

winter-snowball-fightWinter had tightened its grip, and the most important labor of January was staying warm! With only hearth fires for heat, the cold was a very real danger for everyone, but especially the young, the elderly, and the poor. There were still several feasting days to be celebrated, which continued to be a blessing for those who needed help getting through winter. January 6th, the day after Epiphany, was the Feast of the Three Kings. Christian tradition was often blended with agricultural ceremonies rooted in pagan tradition, even though the Church frowned on these practices. The plow and distaff, symbols of male and female societal roles, were both honored. There might be plow races, or processions though villages. The plows might also be pulled around a bonfire to bring good luck for the new year. Actual plowing could not begin until after Candlemas (February 2nd) which was the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. At that point, the winter respite from the fields was officially over, and they were tilled in preparation for spring planting.

harvestingclayThere were other things to do during the month of January. On the coldest days, medieval people completed any type of work that could be done indoors. Spinning thread, weaving, repairing hunting and fishing nets, making utensils, and repairing or sharpening tools were among them. With spring not so far into the future, all the necessary farming equipment would need to be in working order. On milder days, people could do some outdoor work, such as gathering firewood, mending fences, pruning vines, or using a hoe to harvest clay from riverbanks.

A Fantasy Tip from History: Travelling Books

Today I’m sharing a fascinating post from Nicholas C. Rossis’ blog. It is especially interesting to me since traveling tomes play a significant role in my own book series. Enjoy!

book-boxMy Kindle has a couple of thousand books in it. Yes, thousand. Its size? Smaller than most of my books and small enough to fit my jacket’s inside pocket. Nowadays, we barely spare a thought for the amazing fact that we can carry with us more books than an entire library contained mere decades ago.

And yet, books needed to travel in the past, too. In fact, whether in their owner’s backpack, on wagons or in boats, medieval books were keen travelers. Longer works carried ideas across Europe, disseminating the sciences, spreading romances and passing on historical narratives. Short texts were committed to memory, by troubadours for example, but longer texts had to travel in the form of ink and parchment or paper. So, how did these treasures survive a long and arduous trip?…

Source: A Fantasy Tip from History: Travelling Books

Medieval Monday Index

Looking back, I have nearly a year of Medieval Monday posts behind me, can you believe it?! For the start of 2017 I thought it might be fun to take a glance back at posts you may have forgotten or missed, and at the same time create a much needed index. For those of you who might use these as a general resource, an index will make it easier to find information on specific topics of interest. I will add this post to my menu and keep it up to date as I write new ones each week.

Want to know more on a particular topic, but don’t see it here? Make a suggestion! I’m up for the challenge. 🙂

Labors of the Months




April: (Still to come)

May: (Still to come)






November, part 1:

November, part 2:



How things were made

Baking bread:

Boat making:

Bowl carving:

Building and oven:

Coin striking:


Spinning thread:


Timber (making wood beams with hand tools):



A Year on the Farm:  Tales from the Green Valley Documentary Series

February (Food, Music, Construction, Caring for Livestock, Weather):

March (Food, Caring for Livestock, Brewing, Threshing, Winnowing, Milling, Games):


Hallowmas, part 1:

Hallowmas, part 2:


Christmas Day:


General Topics




Cooking methods, part 1:

Cooking methods, part 2:

Dragon lore:





Grooming and hygiene:

The Home:



Illuminated manuscripts:

Jobs (the most horrible ones):

Linen (making from flax):



Merchant ships:





Peasant Houses:

Plants and herbs, part 1:

Plants and herbs, part 2:

Pleasure gardens:

Salt production:

Smelting iron ore:




Medieval Monday: Christmas Day!

christmas-nativityMake we merry both rich and poor,
For now is the time of Christmas!

Let no man come into this hall,
Groom, page, nor yet marshal,
But that some sport he bring withal!
For now is the time of Christmas!

If that he say he cannot sing,
Some other sport then let him bring!
That it may please at this feasting
For now is the time of Christmas!

If he say, he can nought do,
Then for my love ask him no mo!
But to the stocks then let him go!
For now is the time of Christmas!
(from a 15th century carol)

christmas-day2Christmas day is here! Giving gifts is a big part of our present day holiday tradition, but not so in the medieval world. Gifts weren’t given until New Year, which was a continuation of Roman tradition. Instead, Christmas was a time for charity and feasting. Boar was a central part of the feast for those who could afford it, and the head was brought in with great ceremony, usually accompanied by a celebratory song or poem. For those who could not afford to have one, a pie shaped like a boar would do nicely. In wealthier households, venison, game birds, and beef would also be on the menu. A typical Christmas meal might also include bread, cheese, mutton, pork, mince pies, apples, nuts, puddings, fish, stews, soups, sauces, ale, and wine. Food was seasoned with spices like ginger, cloves, saffron, and pepper.

Christmas feasts alleviated the suffering of the poor, for whom winter was the most difficult time; the fields were empty and demands on labor were considerably smaller. Reserves were shrinking as belts tightened by necessity. Rich and poor celebrated Christmas together, with the rich encouraged to open their homes to the needy in honor of the Christ child, and the poor asked to contribute some small thing, such as a loaf of bread, or fuel for the fire. At Glastonbury abbey manor, each peasant was entitled to the following at Christmas dinner:

“He ought to have his dinner at Christmas in the Lord’s court; himself and his wife, that is two white loaves of bread and two dishes of meat and sufficient ale, clearly and honourably. And he ought to bring with him a dish and a cup and a table cloth. And he ought to bring before Christmas one bundle of firewood to cook his dish. And if he does not do this he shall have his victual uncooked.”

christmas-day1In 1314 it was recorded that “some tenants at North Curry in Somerset received loaves of bread, beef and bacon with mustard, chicken soup, cheese and as much beer as they could drink for the day.” Charity was not just encouraged, but in some cases was required in exchange for certain legal rights or favors.

Entertainment was part of the Christmas feast, too. Musicians played and sung, and actors performed. Table games, most notably chess or backgammon, and cards were popular, as were masked social games—even though they were sometimes lewd. The celebration wasn’t over the night of December 25th—Christmas continued on through January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany.

Enjoy the rest of Christmas day, and the remaining 12 days of Christmas!