Medieval Monday: Easter!

Easter was the most important holiday in the medieval world, with many medieval calendars beginning the “new year” with Easter. The holiday included both serious reflection and joyous celebration. Lent was taken quite seriously—forty days of fasting was strictly observed, and the preparations made in anticipation of Easter were extensive. The days before Easter were largely spent in church, starting with the previous Wednesday when services called the Tenebrae began.

On Maundy Thursday (celebration of the Last Supper) the service was solemn and very quiet, with the altars stripped bare of all their decoration. Instead they were covered with branches. This was symbolic of the treatment Jesus received when he was stripped, beaten, and forced to wear a crown of thorns on his way to the cross.

On Good Friday, the medieval world mourned Christ’s death, and a common practice was to begin the day by “creeping to the Cross” barefoot and on one’s hands and knees. Church services were held in almost complete darkness, with just one candleholder (a Hearse) that was gradually extinguished to symbolize the earth falling into darkness. Only the central candle, which represented the light of Christ, remained lit. The priest would read the story of the Passion from the Gospel of John and lift up prayers for God’s mercy and the cleansing of their sins. It would have been a powerful ceremony. No one used tools or nails made of iron on Good Friday. Holy Saturday would have been another day of somber reflection as the world remained in darkness with Jesus lying in the tomb.

But on Easter morning, everything changed—Jesus had risen from the grave, and it was time for a celebration! Church began at sunrise, with everyone gathered outside of the church to sing hymns before going in for services. The darkness from before was replaced with light and the somber mood replaced by joy. Some monasteries put on plays to re-enact the day’s significance. The monks would wear white robes to represent the women who first discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty, and that he was indeed risen. The forty day fast was finally over, and once all of the church-related activities had ended, it was it was finally time for feasting. Feasts were usually put on by royalty, lords, and wealthy nobles. Symbolically, putting on a great feast for the community was reminiscent of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. With no expense spared, it was an act of charity toward those who had much less, and whose winter reserves were nearing depletion (if not already depleted).

Certain fun traditions were observed as well, such as wearing or receiving new clothes and enjoying colorful Easter eggs. Eggs were boiled in salt water to preserve them during Lent, when eating them was forbidden.  They made their re-appearance on Easter, sometimes painted or dyed for the occasion—usually red to symbolize the blood of Christ.  In Germanic regions they were painted green and hung on trees. Children made games of rolling them downhill, or they were hidden (and found) to represent the disciples finding Jesus’ empty tomb.  Egg coloring could be as simple as boiling them with onions to give them a golden color, or they could actually be decorated with gold leaf, as Edward I did with his Easter eggs in 1290.

The celebration did not end on Easter Sunday, however. Hock Monday followed, during which young women “captured” young men and would only release them if paid a ransom (really a donation to the church). On Hock Tuesday, the roles were reversed and the young women were captured. As you can imagine, these antics did not always end well, and eventually attempts were made to better control them—sometimes even forbid them outright.


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Medieval Monday: The Labors of April

Spring is here! Farm work really gets underway—harrowing and sowing are important chores for this month. Crops planted in April included grains, like barley and oats, and legumes like beans, peas, and vetches. Grain seed was planted by standing with one’s back to the breeze, and flinging a handful of seeds outward from the waist. This was a quick and easy way to create a dense growth of grain. It took four bushels of seed for each acre planted.

By contrast, legumes were more carefully planted. A hole was poked into the soil with a “dibbler stick,” and the seed dropped in. It took three bushels of beans or peas to plant each acre. The field was harrowed after all the planting was done by dragging a tool like a giant rake across the field. This covered all of the newly planted seeds with soil.

Flax and hemp were also planted in April. These had a myriad of uses, the most notable of which was fiber production. In addition to large crop fields, household gardens were cleaned up and made ready for planting in April as well. Herbs and coleworts would be the first things planted.

Calving continued, and the lambs were continually being weaned, which meant dairy work could begin for the spring. Cream, milk, cheese, and butter were back on the menu again. Pigs also began to have piglets, so any food leftovers were given to the pigs.

It’s time for another episode of “Tales from the Green Valley” which focuses on what daily life would have been like during the month of April. Subjects in this episode include spring cleaning (and other chores of a medieval housewife), calving, bedding, building/repairing stone walls, field work, and making food from early spring ingredients. Enjoy!


Did you miss last week’s post on medieval tower houses? Click to read and get a visual tour of one towerhouse still standing in Ireland. Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover more topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.

 

 

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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