Medieval Monday: The Labors of October

There is no doubt now, that fall is here. The weather is getting cooler, and the labors of summer have produced an abundant harvest. It is a time of plenty in the medieval world, albeit a cautious one. The harsh winter months are only just ahead, and what has been so carefully grown and collected must now also be preserved to ensure the survival of the community.

harvesting-grapesThe last of the winter grains are being sown in the fallow fields, and grapes are still being harvested for the production of wine, and a common medieval condiment called verjuice; a clear, sour juice made from unripe grapes, apples, berries, or other fruit. It was used mainly for cooking and adding flavor to foods.

October was a time to gather whatever wild nuts and fruits might still be found and preserve them for winter. It was also a time to make decisions about livestock, because storing enough food to feed them all through winter was costly and impractical. Cattle were the first to be fattened by permitting them to wander the fields and eat from leftover stubble. Sheep were the last, because they cropped everything so close to the ground they didn’t leave much behind.

swinePigs, a common sight in every village, were allowed to roam free and forage wherever they could year round. They were only semi-domesticated animals; lean and with coarse hair. They typically lived on what they could find, including scraps, and when well-fed in fall, quickly put on weight. It was said that “a pig that needed to be fed on grain was not worth keeping.” Since acorns were a favorite food of pigs, woods full of oak trees were especially prized for fattening them. Beechnuts, hazel nuts, and hawes were also favored by swineherds, who watched for the first signs that those trees were ready to drop. Poultry would be fattened as well, particularly geese, then slaughtered before they could lose their fat.

The 14th century husband-to-be who wrote the Medieval Home Companion had the following advice for his young bride regarding the month of October:

In October plant peas and beans a finger deep in the earth and a handbreadth from each other. Plant the biggest beans, for when they are new these prove themselves to be larger than the smaller ones can ever become. Plant only a few of them, and at each waning of the moon afterward, a few more so that if some of them freeze, the others will not. If you want to plant pierced peas, sow them in weather that is dry and pleasant, not rainy, for if rain water gets into the openings of the peas, they will crack and split in two and not germinate.

Up until All Saints’ Day you can always transplant cabbages. When they are so much eaten by caterpillars that there is nothing left of the leaves except the ribs, all will come back as sprouts if they are transplanted. Remove the lower leaves and replant the cabbages to the depth of the upper bud. Do not replant the stems that are completely defoliated; leave these in the ground, for they will send up sprouts. If you replant in summer and the weather is dry, you must pour water in the hole; this is not necessary in wet weather

If caterpillars eat the cabbages, spread cinders under the cabbages when it rains and the caterpillars will die. If you look under the leaves of the cabbages, you will find there a great collection of small white morsels in a heap. This is where the caterpillars are born, and therefore you should cut off the part with these eggs and throw it away.  Leeks are sown in season, then transplanted in October and November.


There are more Tales from the Green Valley to enjoy! This episode includes roofing with timbers and thatch, gardening, harvesting pears, period footwear, fattening the pigs, spit roasting lamb, storing/checking fruit for winter. Want to learn more about daily medieval life? Check out the Medieval Monday Index.

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Medieval Monday: Turning Flax into Linen

Flax was an important plant in the medieval world. It had an incredible number of uses, some of which have already been touched on in previous posts. One of its primary uses was the production of linen cloth. Cotton didn’t grow well in northern areas of Europe, but flax did, and linen was needed to make undergarments and cooler summer clothing when wool was too hot to wear.

Harvesting and processing flax was a June activity in the Middle Ages. Like so many other medieval tasks, it was a laborious and time consuming one, and it started with either pulling up the entire plant, or cutting the stalks down to the ground. Before anything else could be done, all of the seeds would have to be carefully removed so that they could either be used for their oil, or saved for planting a new crop of flax.

Retting Flax

Retting

The next step in the process was retting. The most popular method of doing this was to leave the stalks in water to rot for between 3-6 weeks. This method was the fastest and it whitened the fibers, which was preferable. Since a large amount of water was necessary, ponds and streams were used, even though this tended to pollute the water. Retting in a water source that also served as the community’s drinking water was likely to make you very unpopular, and eventually laws were put in place to limit this type of retting. Another method of retting, if a water source was not available, was to bind the flax stalks in bundles and leave them out for the dew to break them down, turning the bundles on occasion. This method took considerably longer, possibly several months, and the resulting fibers were not as white.

combing fibers

Hackling linen fibers

Once the stalks of flax had rotted, the flax would be dried out and then beaten between wooden blocks to break them apart—a process that was sometimes called beetling. Next would come scutching, where the woody bits of the plant were finally removed from the silky fibers inside. The last step was hackling; combing the fibers into separate lengths that could finally be spun into thread, then woven into cloth.

The end result of all this work was a beautiful, versatile fabric that could be cut and sewn into garments, as these women from the 14th century are doing.

women sewing linen

 

 

 

 

Medieval Monday: The Labors of September

“Now in autumn, in which the fruits of the earth are assembled, is the time of reaping and of the vintage, and it signifies the time of the General Judgment, when every single person will receive the reward for his works.” – Hrabanus Maurus (9th Century Theologian)

Summer is nearing its end—can you feel it? For some of us the nights are finally getting cooler, and the birds are just starting to gather and circle in large numbers. With children going back to school, our routines have changed, and we’re already feeling some anticipation about upcoming autumn activities and holidays.

threshing2Medieval people had a heightened awareness of seasonal changes. The onset of autumn brought about a final burst of activity as they prepared themselves to endure an inevitable winter. The grain harvest that had begun in summer continued into fall, with threshing and winnowing of what had already been reaped from the fields. At the same time legumes, such as peas and beans, were gathered after they had dried on the plants. Never letting anything go to waste, the leftover leaves and stems could be used to feed the animals, or plowed under as fertilizer. Some fields would be plowed anew with seeds for rye and winter wheat.

Another significant labor for September was harvesting grapes for wine making. Because of the amount of land needed, and the extensive labor involved in both cultivating and working vineyards, they were usually only kept on large estates or monasteries. Wine was incredibly important in medieval society. It was consumed by most classes with meals, but also had medicinal uses, and spiritual significance as part of the Eucharist.

vineyardNew wine was the most common drink, which had very limited alcohol content. But stronger wines were also produced, and could be watered down if needed. There were many more variations in taste, smell, and color than people are accustomed to today. Wines might be red, gold, pink, green, white, or such a dark red that it had a black appearance. There was also a variety of flavor–some were pleasant and sweet (usually reserved for special occasions), where others might be more bitter, or even vinegary.

winemakingSometimes the type of wine chosen was dependent on the season (and which bodily humors were at play), on age, or on the state of one’s health.  Melancholy was thought to be the dominant humour in autumn, which was “cold and dry.” The Secretum Secretorum advocated specific foods, drink, and activities to combat the negative effects. “Hot moist foods like chicken, lamb and sweet grapes should be eaten and fine old wines drunk, to ward of melancholy…Overmuch exercise and lovemaking are not recommended…but the heat and moisture of warm baths are helpful in keeping melancholy under control.”

beehivesOther labors of September included gathering honey and wax from beehives, which would then be moved to suitable locations for winter. Cows would be bred to ensure there would be young calves in the spring. Any cattle, or other livestock, that there were not enough resources to feed through the winter would be sold or butchered for meat. The meat would then be salted, smoked, or otherwise preserved in anticipation of the winter to come. At the end of September, on Michaelmas, lords and other debtors collected their rents and payments.


In this month’s Tales from the Green Valley, learn about plowing with oxen, sowing seeds, harrowing, baking bread, period clothing, caring for pigs, and making period food (pigeon, apple fritters, mushrooms).

Learn more about life in the Middle Ages by checking out the Medieval Monday Index.

 

Medieval Monday: Music

Medieval instruments illuminationAs Europe transitioned from the violence of the Dark Ages into the Middle Ages, music became increasingly important.  The earliest music was sung or played in unison, with harmonies gradually introduced over time.  Not all of it was religious in nature; the crusades brought in Arab love songs which were popular, and the French Troubadours and minstrels sang of romance and courtly love. These and other influences blended together with existing pagan and religious music traditions to create a rich, beautiful, musical heritage we can still enjoy.

A large entertainment industry grew up around music, for both the wealthy and the poor. Holidays, special celebrations, and festivals were filled with music, which was believed to aid in digestion. It was therefore frequently played at mealtimes and in between courses of food during feasts.

Medieval instruments2A variety of instruments were played, their varied sounds evoking the proper mood for each occasion.  Some we’re still familiar with today like the bagpipe, harp, harpsichord, lute, horn, whistle, bell, drum, and recorder.  Others are more obscure, such as the Kortholt, Lizard, Cornamuse, Shawm, and Zink. You can go to this site to see a more extensive list and hear samples of what these instruments actually sounded like.

And since no post on music should remain silent, I’ve included a YouTube video that plays an hour’s worth of authentic musical selections from the early Middle Ages.  Hope you enjoy it!

Medieval Monday: Solar Eclipse

Have your eclipse-watching glasses ready? Or maybe with all the warnings about faulty viewing glasses, you’re just going to hide from it and watch the event on NASA TV. Either way, today’s rare celestial event is fascinating; something beautiful and awe-inspiring…for us. But how did our medieval counterparts feel about it?

This might largely depend on who, and where, you were at the time an eclipse occurred. There were some, like an Anglo Saxon scholar named Bede, who understood that a solar eclipse happened because the moon was passing between the sun and the earth. In one of his scientific texts, he described how “a solar eclipse occurs when the Sun is hidden by the intervention of the Moon, and a lunar eclipse when the Sun, Earth and moon are aligned with Earth in the centre.”

But not everyone would have been knowledgeable about astronomy, and for those who weren’t, the darkening of the sky in the middle of the day would have been a frightening and ominous event. Even if they hadn’t read it for themselves, they would have been taught stories from the Bible concerning periods of darkness, such as during the ten plagues of Egypt, or when Christ died after being crucified. Apocalyptic accounts associated the darkening of the sun with the end of the world. “The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday” was a Middle English text which described the first sign of the apocalypse. The “Sun will give no light and will be cast down to Earth – while you now see it [the Sun] as pleasing and bright, it will become as black as coal.”

It didn’t help that these negative associations with eclipses, and the superstitions people held about them, seemed to be supported by significant events throughout medieval history. Louis of Bavaria, who was Charlemagne’s son and a great Emperor, died shortly after experiencing an eclipse. It was said that he died of fright. Adding to the distress of the Emperor’s death, his sons began a three-year dispute over his succession, which eventually led to the division of Europe into three large areas: Germany, Italy, and France.

The Anglo Saxons later linked an eclipse to a Viking invasion that occurred in 879.

Another solar eclipse happened on August 2, 1133, which could be seen in England and Germany. For both countries, it turned out to be a particularly bad omen. In England, the eclipse could be seen the day after King Henry I departed, and in fact he died in Normandy shortly after. The Germans blamed the same eclipse for the sack of Augsburg and the subsequent massacre of its people by Duke Frederick.

In 1140 William of Malmesbury wrote, ‘There was an eclipse throughout England, and the darkness was so great that people at first thought the world was ending.  Afterwards they realised it was an eclipse, went out, and could see the stars in the sky.  It was thought and said by many, not untruly, that the king would soon lose his power.”

An eclipse was even blamed for the fall of Constantinople in 1453, though in truth a postern gate had been carelessly left open, allowing Turkish soldiers entrance to the city.

There was also an element of inconvenience associated with the darkness of an eclipse. In the 11th century, one observer wrote, “the Sun was obscured for the space of three hours; it was so great that any people who were working indoors could only continue if in the meantime they lit lamps. Indeed some people went from house to house to get lanterns or torches. Many were terrified.”

I wonder if in the Middle Ages they knew to protect their eyes by not looking directly at an eclipse. Even now with all our knowledge, it is reported that about 100 people in the United States go completely blind each time there is an eclipse, and even more sustain damage to their retinas. I can imagine that having even a small number of people go blind in a medieval village or city after an eclipse occurs would only add to the sense of dread that fueled existing medieval beliefs and superstitions.


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

Medieval Monday: Fire! Fire!

Fire was crucial to survival in the Middle Ages. With electricity and gas-powered devices still far into the future, open flame was the most common source of heat for cooking, industry, and protection against the cold. Fires were a bit more difficult to set in an era before matches, particularly if everything was wet. Fire-steels, flint, or pyrite (struck against iron to produce a spark) might be carried in a leather pouch along with tinder. Tinder could be dried brush, straw, birch bark, rotten wood, pine needles, wood shavings, small twigs, or char-cloth. Char-cloth was made by briefly catching a bit of clean linen on fire, then putting the fire out. The resulting bit of blackened fiber could be saved for later and easily caught fire. Once a fire had been successfully lit, the resulting coals were protected with fire covers or other means. It was more convenient to revive a fire from still-hot coals than to start one from scratch.

As much as fire was a necessity to life, it was also a significant hazard in the medieval world. Stone and brick were prohibitively expensive building materials for the average person. Most buildings were made of wattle and daub with thatch roofs, and straw beds were often pulled close to hearth fires—all of these materials burned quickly once lit. In cities, the buildings were also built very close together, so if one building went up in flames, those near it would likely burn down as well. Many towns throughout Europe were at one point or other devastated by fire, whether by lit by accident, invaders, or even lightning. After 1213, London forbade thatch roofing in favor of shingles and tile, though other towns were slow to do the same.

Cook houses and kitchens were sometimes built separate from other structures because they were such a common fire hazard. Brewers and barbers were tightly regulated for the same reason. They were all required to have their buildings whitewashed and plastered, both inside and out. Fires posed not only a threat to people and livestock, but to the longevity of the community if large food stores and other structures or supplies vital to survival were destroyed.

Imagine trying to fight a large fire with no hydrants, hoses, firetrucks, extinguishers, or any other modern equipment. In some cities access to water was already at a premium, and even with a large water source close by, there was no fast delivery system. Firefighting equipment of the day was buckets of water, firehooks to pull down thatch and compromised buildings, and lots of manpower. Each home was required to have a full container of water ready and waiting outside the front door, and every citizen was obligated to assist when a fire broke out.

While stone buildings were safer, they were not impervious to fire, and even castles could be destroyed by it. Starting fires was often a tactic used by those laying siege to a castle or keep. Catapults could fling flaming objects over the stone walls in the hopes of catching something flammable on the other side. Once started, such fires were very difficult if not impossible to extinguish.

On a personal note, I once visited a still-habited castle in Germany (sadly, I cannot remember its name) which burned in modern times much as structures would have burned in the medieval era. A fire was started on a cold winter night when embers from an untended fireplace lit a rug on fire. There were no hydrants or sprinkler systems—the firemen had to draw water from the river below the castle. But it was so uncharacteristically cold that the water was freezing in the hoses on the way up. Like ancient times, citizens were called upon to try to save the castle by bucket-brigade.

I remember seeing aerial photographs immortalized on informational plaques at the site, showing the sections that had burned. The original walls remained standing upright, but everything inside of them was gone, right down to the bare earth below. The owners had spent many years after (along with a small fortune) restoring the castle, though countless irreplaceable pieces of history had been lost forever.

It has been close to 30 years since I visited that place on a leisurely afternoon, and enjoyed piece of Black Forest cake in the café just below it. But it obviously made a strong impression on me, as sights and tales of fires would have made an even stronger impression on those so vulnerable to them in the medieval era. Such events were in fact one of the ways medieval people marked the passage of time before watches and calendars were commonplace items. Everyone would remember the year the river flooded, or lightning hit the church steeple…or the local castle burned to the ground on a frigid, winter night.


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

Medieval Monday: The Labors of August

The most crucial labor in August was harvesting and threshing the rye and winter wheat, which would have to sustain the community through many months to come. August 1st began the feast of Lammas, when the first grain of the new harvest was consecrated and made into bread for the Eucharist. There would be more harvest celebrations yet to come in September and October, but Lammas celebrated its beginning, and was as much a symbol of the spiritual harvest as it was the physical.

SickleWheat was cut down with a sickle; a short handled tool with a curved blade. Those reaping the wheat would grasp a handful of it, well below the heads of grain, and cut the stems. They would be bundled into small sheaves at first, then into larger ones called shocks that could be left standing in the sun to dry out.  Once all of the grain had been harvested from the field, first the poor could come through and glean any fallen grain, then the livestock would be allowed to eat down the stalks and forage.

Long stretches of dry weather were extremely important for a good harvest. Too much damp weather could ruin the grain, or leave it tainted with ergot, a dangerous, toxic fungus that could do severe physical and neurological damage, causing hallucinations and paranoia. There has even been some speculation by historians correlating the most intense periods of witch hunting and inquisitions, with the worst outbreaks of ergot tainted food.

If grain could not be dried out in the sun, due to unseasonable weather or climates with damp or short growing seasons, grain dying kilns might be used. These were shaped much like regular medieval ovens, but larger, with well-constructed flues.

threshingOnce the grain stalks were dried out, the next task would be threshing and winnowing. This process separated the useful heads of grain, which could be made into flour, from the useless stalks and chaff that could not be eaten.

A flail was used to beat the wheat bundles, which shook loose the grain. If done outdoors, the chaff would naturally blow away on the wind—but it might also take some of the grain with it. Therefore, threshing was often done inside barns. This made it an activity that could continue through the fall, and even winter months if necessary.

I found this very short video that shows someone using a flail to separate grain from wheat stalks. There is even a portion of it where you can actually see the wind lifting away the chaff. The hand-crank machine he uses at the end is obviously not period, but everything before that is informative for those who want to see how this was done. Can you imagine doing this kind of labor for hours at a time, days on end? I would imagine it was a sweaty, back-breaking task in the August heat—with no possibility of a soothing shower at the end of the day!

Below that is the August video for Tales from the Green Valley. Sadly it’s their last month in the valley, but since I didn’t start with episode 1, I will keep posting them each month until I’ve gone through the entire year. They will stay in my Medieval Monday Index indefinitely, so those of you doing research can go back and find them at any time. In this episode they discuss cutting, drying, and bringing in the grain harvest, taking out the geese, making writing quills, duster brushes, and collecting goose down, making lights from rushes and animal tallow, and making a period goose meat pie.