Medieval Monday: Sleep (part 1)

There is no doubt that the seasons ruled medieval life, dictating what work needed to be done and what food was available to eat, but did you know they affected sleep habits as well? With our ability to brighten up stores, homes, and streets with electric lights, our modern-day sleep patterns don’t change a whole lot with the seasons. Most of us aim for a solid 8 hours and adjust our bed times and alarm clocks accordingly.

But imagine during the long winter nights, going to bed shortly after dark, and not getting up until sunrise? That’s roughly 14 hours a night—a bit too much sleep!


According to historian Roger Ekirch, medieval adults broke up their sleep into two parts, with a time of wakefulness in between. They might use this time for intimacy, prayer, study, light household chores, or even visiting neighbors. After an hour or two, they would go back to bed until the sun rose. This was common practice for everyone, including monks, who were required to get up in the middle of the night as part of their prayer rituals. This was thought to protect the monastic community and its surroundings from demonic attacks. Children were the exception to the “first and second sleep” norm, and it was recommended that they sleep straight through the night.

During the winter months the shortness of the days, and lighter workloads, allowed abundant opportunity for sleeping, but summer was quite different. Field labors in the heat of the sun were more intensive, and exhausting. Under the feudal system, people were required to first labor for their lord or king before they took care of their own fields and gardens. This made for very long, back-breaking days that didn’t always leave enough time to sleep, especially in the northernmost areas of Europe. The remedy? Afternoon naps.

Naps were also common year-round for those who were expected to work at night while everyone else slept, or for those whose jobs entailed a lot of waiting. These would primarily be guards and servants. If they couldn’t go home to nap in bed, they would settle in someplace where they could sleep sitting up.

More information about sleep will be in my next post, where I’ll talk about beds, sleeping arrangements, and sleeping attire.

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


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.

Enjoy one last “Tales from the Green Valley” episode. We’ve now followed this team of experts through an entire year on a medieval farm, and the information given has been amazing. Lots of really fascinating details in this one, including tending cattle, harvesting timber supplies, repairing tools, building work, hedge laying, breaking ice, mucking the cow shed, harvesting oak apples (for dye or ink), making ink, repairing shoes, preparing and using medicines, distilling water, preparing the field for spring, harvesting kale, winter foods and recipes.

Though I won’t be posting these at the start of each month anymore, you can still watch the videos anytime,  or read my labors of the months posts, by using the Medieval Monday Index.

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!


Medieval Monday: Advent–the days before Christmas

advent3Christmas was an important event for Christians in medieval Europe. Not just celebrated around December 25th, it began with the advent season at the end of November and continued through Epiphany on January 6th. Advent (the 40 days before Christmas) was a time of preparation, of waiting for God’s arrival—both historically as the Christ Child, and also in the future end times spoken of in the book of Revelation. Fasting and holy reflection preceded the greater merriment and feasting that took place during the 12 days of Christmas. The fasting was not as stringent as that which would come before Easter during Lent, and it was broken up by smaller feasting days in between, such as for St. Nicholas day on December 6th.  Taking time for prayer, confession, and repentance was also an important part of Advent, when one was supposed to experience a mix of longing and desire for the joy of Christmas that was yet to come.

advent1Christmas trees did not become a tradition until much later, but houses and churches alike were typically decorated in green; a spiritual symbol that signified eternal life, and also was a reminder of the coming spring when the cold, bleak world would come alive again. Holly, bay, ivy, mistletoe, and anything else green could be used along with candles to make rooms look festive.

advent2In England, a form of the nativity scene was made from small boxes, often decorated with flowers, ribbons, and sometimes apples. They had a glass lid, and were covered with a white napkin. Inside were two dolls—one representing Mary, and the other Jesus. These boxes were carried from door to door, and it was considered unlucky not to see one by the time Christmas Eve arrived.

Hymns and carols also made up part of the medieval Christmas season. “O Come O Come Emmanuel” is one such medieval Advent hymn. More to come on the medieval celebration of Christmas in next Monday’s post!

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.



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!


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.