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.

 

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Medieval Monday: Pottery

potter-at-wheelOne of the tasks medieval people could do any time of the year 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 you to enjoy. He shows a really great piece that was apparently made for washing hands that I’d never heard of.

Medieval Monday: The Labors of July

“Summer, you who ripen man’s sustenance with the wholesome heat of the sun’s warmth, should be blessed by all manner of men. May your friendly demeanour, and your attractive, cheerful and happy appearance ever be thanked!”
– Thomas Hoccleve

July was a time for fruit and crops to ripen, and there was always a certain amount of anxiety over how productive the season would be. Too many storms and excessive rain throughout the summer months was not just an inconvenience, but could have serious long-term repercussions in terms of food supply and physical health. Despite the abundance of growing things, July was sometimes a hungry month. Stores from the previous year’s harvest would be running out (or would be gone if the previous year was a lean one), but it was still too early to harvest most crops. Because of this, gathering wild foods became an important task for July. Such foods helped to stretch out the food supply until it was time for the main harvest.

WeedingWeeding was another July activity, done to ensure the health and abundance of crops and garden plants. A sickle was used for weeding along with a stick with a y-shaped end, called a crotch.  The crotch held the weed in place while it was cut down with the sickle.  Nettle and thistle were common weeds that had to be kept in check, along with cornflower, poppies, dock, corn cockle, and charlock.

Book of Hours Harvest2
Depending on where they lived, some communities would begin reaping rye, winter wheat, and vetches in July. Teams of men and women would use scythes to cut down and bind barley, beans, peas, and oats. The sheaves would be kept small enough to carry, and another group would follow behind to stack them. Workers would occasionally switch between cutting, binding, and stacking in order to rest different muscle groups. The Church took as a tithe one sheaf out of every ten.

Wheat was cut at the top, leaving the long stalks still standing. Later on, these stalks could be cut down to feed cattle or they might be plowed under as fertilizer to enrich the soil. After crops were harvested, the poor were allowed to pick through what was left over, and after that, the animals could forage.

Peasants worked long, hard hours during the summer months. Manorial accounts from one 14th century manor in England showed 39 tenants who carried out 2,847 different tasks! But summer was a time for fun as well. The good weather provided opportunities for a variety of outdoor games that brought different classes of people together, from peasants to nobles. These were largely community diversions rather than competitive games between individuals. (However, medieval entertainment is another topic, worthy of its own post!)

One last interesting bit of information I found, which gives insight into the medieval mind and way of life. “According to the Secretum Secretorum…the disruptive humor choler, hot and dry, was the dominant bodily influence in summer, and so excessive hot food and drink, and food likely to cause digestive upsets, were to be avoided. Cool, moist foods like veal dressed with vinegar, cucumber, chicken, pottages based on barley, and sharp fruits like apples and pomegranates were recommended. Anything heating, such as lovemaking and baths, should be avoided.”

Now enjoy another episode of Tales from the Green Valley–this one has some really fascinating information. Learn about doing laundry (making detergent from ash, stain remover from stale urine, rinsing in the stream, and using wringing posts), harvesting hay in the meadow, weeding crops, gathering gooseberries, beans, and roses, and cooking beef, puddings, and other seasonal foods.

Want to know more about the Middle Ages? Use the Medieval Monday Index to see more posts on a variety of topics.

 

Medieval Monday: Travel Distance in a Day

medieval-horseBack in January, I put together a post on horses and their role in medieval society, and another on travel. Today’s post is a bit unusual, but it relates to both of those. It will be particularly interesting to those of you who are also writers, and are constantly trying to figure out distances. How far can my character travel in a day by horseback, or on foot. How about an army? How does terrain and weather affect travel distances? I was thinking along these lines over the weekend while working on my next book. I did a little poking around online, and found this awesome thread in a forum from five years ago. The best credit I can give to the writers/researchers is to include the forum page and their forum usernames. But whoever they are, I thank them for putting this together, as I am guessing it took a lot of time and wasn’t all that easy. Even if you aren’t a writer, this is pretty fascinating stuff.

 

Anyway, here is the information, taken from https://www.cartographersguild.com/showthread.php?t=19730. I hope you find it interesting and possibly useful as well.

How far can a horse travel in one day: by fifty

Strangely I was doing a little research on how far a horse can realistically travel in one day and after much google-fu it seems to depend very much on the type of horse, conditioning (i.e. is it used for long distance travel all the time, rather than been standing in a field for months, or only used for racing, etc..) and condition (i.e. is it well fed and watered), as well as how heavy a load and the terrain involved.

…anyway this is the list of distances (in miles per day) I’ve come up with from a variety of sources that I shall be using personally:

On Roads / trails
Level or rolling terrain: 40
Hilly terrain: 30
Mountainous terrain: 20

Off-Road (or unkempt trails etc)
Level/rolling grasslands: 30
Hilly grasslands: 25
Level/rolling forest/thick scrub: 20
Very hilly forest/thick scrub: 15
Un-blazed Mountain passes: 10
Marshland: 10

Assumptions

  • An average quality horse, of a breed suitable for riding, conditioned for overland travel and in good condition.
  • Roads and trails are in good condition and up kept by whatever local authority deals with them.
  • Weather is good to fair, and travelers are riding for around ten hours a day.

Notes

Halve these distances for a horse pulling a cart or for a very heavily laden horse (e.g. a fully armoured knight who insists on wearing his armour all day rather than having it stowed on a second baggage horse as would be normal!).

Add half again for specially trained horses and riders who are prepared to push hard (rangers, scouts and messangers, etc…) though do bear in mind that horses cannot be pushed like this for more than a few days at a time. You can add a bit more again to this distance if the breed of horse is exceptionally suitable for this sort of thing, but I’d say 2 to 2.5 times the base is the absolute maximum without some sort of magical assistance!

Poor weather such as heavy rain or wind should reduce distances by about one quarter, and very poor conditions like heavy snow or gale force winds, etc.. should reduce distances by at least half if not more.

Finding a place to ford a small river or swimming your horse across a larger river should knock a couple of miles off the day’s journey, other unique obstacles might have a similar reduction. (as a guide remember a horse walks at around 4 miles per hour (compared to a human average of around 2.5 – 3mph) so if the obstacle takes half an hour to deal with that’s a couple of miles lost.

Out of interest

The Tevis cup is a 100-mile-in-one-day competition which goes over some quite rugged and mountainous trail terrain in the western states of USA… but they do it on very special Arab horses, with little or no baggage and even the winning times are usually around 17 hours!

 

How far can a person walk in one day: by fifty

Ok, well to weigh in in similar style to my earlier post…

Again from my reading around on the matter overland travel by foot again depends on a number of human factors such as the condition and experience of the walker as well as environmental and terrain considerations.

Equipment and preparedness would also have a bearing… Modern hiking boots, ultra-light camping equipment and freeze dried trail rations as compared to hob-nailed roman sandals and hard tack, or even pre-historic fur wrapped feet and foraging as you go would all have a dramatic effect on distances covered!

But working on an earliest Roman through to a latest pre-19thC sort of period, and with some other rather broad assumptions again (such as average human walking speed of 3 mph) this is the list of distances (in miles per day) that I would tentatively suggest:

On Roads / trails
Level or rolling terrain: 20
Hilly terrain: 14
Mountainous terrain: 9

Off-Road (or unkempt trails etc)
Level/rolling grasslands: 15
Hilly grasslands: 12
Level/rolling forest/thick scrub: 8
Very hilly forest/thick scrub: 6
Un-blazed Mountain passes: 6
Marshland: 5

Assumptions

  • A young to middle aged man of average height and build, in good physical condition and used to walking for long distances, Equipped with good walking footwear and other hiking equipment appropriate to the era.
  • Roads and trails are in good condition and up kept by whatever local authority deals with them.
  • Weather is good to fair, and travellers are walking for around 7-8 hours a day.

Notes

Reduce these distances by around a quarter for a heavily laden man.

Add a quarter to half again for very experienced hikers.

As with mounted travel, exceptionally experienced and/or physically capable men might be able to do significantly more as a one off forced march, but twice the base is probably a reasonable maximum and I would expect them to take be walking for up to 20 hours and be utterly exhausted at the end of it!

Out of interest

Naismith’s rule is a ‘rule of thumb’ for planning a hiking expedition by calculating how long it will take to walk the route, including ascents. The basic rule is:

“Allow 1 hour for every 3 miles forward, plus 1 hour for every 2000 feet of ascent”.

I’ve read anything from 15 to 25 miles per day quoted in many places for a fully laden Roman Legionary, but 15 miles seems more common though with time to break camp and rebuild it after the days march factored in most sources reckon they were only marching for a round 5 hours a day anyway. (There are some sources that suggestion 50 mile forced marches were possible for the Legions but many dismiss this as an exaggeration)

And just to show how subjective and ‘as a guide only’ this sort of table is:

The world record for the marathon distance of just over 26 miles is a mere 2 hours and 8 minutes!

Ulysse Grant thought a forced march of 20 miles in a day was generally not a good idea if troops were expected to fight at the end of it

The British SAS selection ‘Test week’ concludes with ‘Endurance’, a 40 mile march across the Brecon Beacons (very hilly / mountainous terrain, famed for its bad weather) – completed in less than 20 hours whilst loaded in excess of fifty five pounds of equipment, plus water, food and rifle.


More Info: by rdanhenry

Over long distances, there are very few animals that the human (in proper condition) cannot outpace. Horses, however, are no slouches themselves at long distances. I would say you probably get about the same rates on foot or by horse, assuming conditions do not hinder the horse unduly (you’ll never get a horse up Everest and a man can fit through more closely grown trees). The great advantage of mounted travel is that somebody else is doing the work. You also generally use a beast of burden, which can handle more weight than a man.

Dean Karnazes “Ran 3,000 miles (4,800 km) across the United States from Disneyland to New York City in 75 days, running 40 to 50 miles per day, 2011” per Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dean_Karnazes)

Armies will travel much slower, due to the amount of equipment required, including considerations of food for such large groups. Armies generally include wagons, which will always be slower than simply and horse and rider. Smaller bands of travelers who are less burdened will go faster. Maximum rates require that one be essentially unburdened; running over 100 miles in a day is simply not done with a backpack.

I’d say 20-40 miles per day on a good road and no hampering conditions is about what you can expect with a normal group either on foot or mounted. Conditions will often make travel slower. Don’t forget that weather will have an effect; travel can be slowed considerably if the skies are unfriendly. The need to obtain food is more of a problem with horses, if there is no ready grazing. How elaborate the encampment preparations are will also have an affect on travel rate, as will daylight hours, as both influence hours spent in travel. An army that fortifies its encampment will be more secure, but travel slower, than one that simply throws down its bedrolls, sets a watch, and sleeps.

And as fifty’s post points out, there is a difference between how far you will travel in a day if you simply need to get where you are going and how fast you go if you need to reserve enough strength to do battle or otherwise exert yourself when done with the journey. Peaceful pilgrims in a peaceful land will outpace an army or a group of “adventurers” exploring wilderness. There are many factors, which is why historical numbers vary so much.


by Midgardsormr

I don’t recall where I read it, but I remember learning that the effective control radius for a Medieval castle is about 20 miles: the distance that a mounted force can travel in a single day and still be able to fight when they arrive.

Somewhere around here is a very nice analysis of settlement density in an English county, originally posted by Gidde I believe, that included some numbers of travel distance and time. If I recall correctly, the average distance between settlements was roughly half a day’s walk, such that a person could go to the next town, make some trades, and be back home before dark.

 

Medieval Monday: The Labors of June

In the Middle Ages, the arrival of June meant not only a change in the weather, but a shift in daily labors, and in what was on the menu to eat.

Labors of the month JuneWhile most crops were harvested much later in the summer, hay was the first to be cut in June, though it was typically poor quality. In a society so dependent on animals for survival, haying was a vital community activity, with the lord’s fields taking priority over all the others. This was a labor carried out by men, women, and children. They worked in groups under the supervision of a reeve that had been elected by the peasants themselves. The men cut the hay with long scythes, each going through about one acre per day. Women and girls were responsible for raking and turning it. If the hay was not able to dry out, it would rot and be of no use.

On the edge of the field, there would be a man with a whetstone who could make quick repairs to dull and broken scythes as needed throughout the day. A horn would be blown at dusk to signal the end of the work day.  Sometimes a lord would provide the laborers with a meal and ale, or allow villagers to take home as much hay as they could carry home on their scythe. Anyone who tried to pile on too much was likely to lose their load on the way and go home with nothing.

At the end of June, it was time to pull weeds from the wheat fields, plow fallow fields, and uproot thistles. However, it was considered unlucky in England to pull thistles before June 24th (St. John’s day).  Anyone who did would find they would only multiply three times over.

Bee keeping was another important activity of June, which was when they were expected to begin swarming. Watching a hive was typically children’s work, as they could do so while spinning or doing some other household task. When a swarm formed, it would be followed by villagers banging pots and making other loud noises to “help the bees settle” and also stake their claim on the swarm.

During the month of June, sheep would be taken to a pond or a stream to be washed before shearing. Running water was preferred because their wool tended to be so filthy. Other tasks for June included repairing barns and outbuildings, clearing away brush, digging hop plots, fixing broken carts, gathering hemp and flax, and making salt.


Enjoy another episode of Tales from the Green Valley, where some of the above labors and others are shown. The video demonstrates the washing and shearing of sheep, dairy production (making cheese), field labors, special foods, and June festivities. For more information about wool production, you can revisit another of my posts on the subject. Check out my Medieval Index for a variety of other topics related to the Middle Ages.

 

Medieval Monday: Blacksmiths

Blacksmiths played a vital role in medieval society. Everyone, from the lowest peasant, to the King required their services. Every village had at least one blacksmith, with larger towns and cities supporting many more of them.

We often have a certain image in mind when it comes to the medieval blacksmith; we see them crafting swords, daggers, armor, and shields. And certainly there were some blacksmiths—particularly those that worked in castles—who specialized in producing the tools of war. Castle blacksmiths were envied for the position of prestige they held, and their positions were usually hereditary. But whether they were working in a castle, or a rural village, a blacksmith’s work was dirty, loud, hot, and physically demanding with little glamor in the daily routine.

Aside from weapons and armor, just about every chore and trade required some kind of metalwork. Mundane items like nails, doorknobs horseshoes, chains, kitchen tools, utensils for cooking in fireplaces, cauldrons, farming implements, locks, keys, arrow tips, axes, and much more were all made by blacksmiths. Once made, many items also needed constant repair, making a blacksmith’s job a very busy one. Some blacksmiths might even make jewelry, or somewhat more frightening, torture devices. Blacksmiths with special skill could make intricate and impressive wrought iron pieces for structures like cathedrals and castles, and metalwork intended for defense. With the wide variety of items made, and the different skills required for each, it is no surprise that their work was eventually split up into different specialties. Not every blacksmith did the same kind of work, and some branched out into work with precious metals. By the 14th century, clocks were even added to the blacksmith’s repertoire.

There were unusual beliefs and superstitions surrounding blacksmiths. They were thought by some to have healing powers, particularly over injuries like broken bones. However, they were also sometimes associated with the devil. While they were too important to be persecuted due to this belief, blacksmiths were often the object of colorful legends.

Enjoy this video showing a blacksmith at work to learn a little more about the craft and how to make a medieval axe.


Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover more topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.

 

Medieval Monday: Smelting Iron Ore / Bloomeries

I am re-posting this from over a year ago with the intent of making my next post about blacksmiths and their work. It is a subject I haven’t tackled yet even though blacksmiths played an important role in medieval society.


My second book, Ancient Voices, is set in a small mountain village called Minhaven—a place full of miners and blacksmiths.  Naturally I had to do some research, to figure out what mining techniques were used back then, and how iron ore dug from the ground was transformed into something that could be used to make things like tools, knives, and swords.

hotslagOne process I had particular trouble envisioning was the smelting process. The simplest and most common furnaces used in the Middle Ages were called bloomeries, and they were typically built out of stone or clay.  Iron ore was placed in through the top, along with a lot of charcoal for fuel, and kept burning for hours.  Very high temperatures had to be maintained for the process to work.  Air could be fed into the bloomery with a hand bellows.  Sometimes limestone or oyster shells were added into the mix as well, so that they would combine with the impurities in the ore.  The end result would be a brittle slag that could be separated from the iron, which could then be hammered into submission by a blacksmith.

I found a couple of great videos that show how the smelting process works.  The first is replicating Edwardian era techniques, which were relatively unchanged from the Middle Ages.  It gives a great demonstration in only about 5 minutes.

For those of you wanting more, this video is more authentic medieval, and shows the entire process, but is considerably longer (about 22 minutes).  Definitely worth the time if you are interested in the topic.  Both videos are very well done. Enjoy!