Medieval Monday: Timber!

I’ve been binge watching old episodes of Barnwood Builders (diy network), which follows a group of men who reclaim old decaying log cabins from the 1700s-1800s.  They restore the original logs and rebuild the cabins so they can be turned into new log cabins, giving life to a piece of our history that is rapidly disappearing.  It is interesting to learn about the history of pioneer building techniques, how to cut notches and chink, how to build a roof, etc.  (And 68 year old Kentucky native Johnny Jett cracks me up.)

Medieval construction was also largely timber based, and some of what the pioneers did hadn’t changed all that much from medieval times.  I found this video that shows how trees were transformed into wood beams with nothing but hand tools.  Since I’m always fascinated by the daily life aspect of the Middle Ages, I enjoy videos like these–though I have to say, I cringed a little at the obvious safety issue of repeatedly swinging an ax toward your body.  At any rate, this is the kind of detail that helps me with my world building when I’m writing.


 

Advertisements

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.

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

 

 

 

 

Tackle your TBR List and Enter my Giveaway

The Tackle Your TBR Read-a-thon is well underway! If you missed the start, that’s OK. You can still join through the 20th of September.

Today I’m adding my own giveaway to the event and also making an announcement! The new Clean Reads Repository I’ve been putting together over the last couple of weeks is now LIVE!

It is called PureFiction–check it out! Suggest a clean book to add to the repository to enter my rafflecopter giveaway. You’ll have the chance to win a bundle book with the entire Wind Rider Chronicles, including novella Into the Shadow Wood, and all of the related short stories.


September 11th to 24th sees the fifth TackleTBR Readathon, thanks to Tressa at Wishful Endings.

The goal you set is entirely up to you – maybe you don’t even want to set a goal.  

Apart from reading books to shorten your list, though, the read-a-thon includes challenges from participants (with prizes to enter for), activities to join in, and general fun and mayhem.

Read all about it at Wishful Endings and sign up at any time through to 20th September.

I’ll be setting you a challenge on 19th September, for which I’ll be giving a prize.

Sign up now to reduce the length/size of your reading pile.  

Ancient Tunnels and Present Day Mysteries

Today I’m giving you a peek at my latest newsletter. These go out every couple of weeks, and in them I share deeper insights into my book world and inspirations. You’ll also get bonus stuff, like links to a wide variety of free books by other authors, Rafflecopter giveaways, and the chance to participate in surveys that shape my series. Additionally, when you subscribe, you’ll get a free copy of Ancient Voices: Into the Depths, the second book in my series.


Ancient Tunnels and Present Day Mysteries

I love a good mystery, don’t you? Winding its way beneath the green hills of Europe is the erdstall tunnel system.

These tunnels are believed to have been constructed in the Middle Ages, but no one can figure out who built them, or why. And there aren’t just a few…over 2,000 tunnels have been discovered so far! They are smooth and rounded, carved right into the bare earth. They aren’t very large, only a few feet tall and wide. “Slip outs” are small holes that connect passages that are running at different elevations. Some of these are so tight, a person would have to literally squeeze through them to move from one tunnel to another.

Erdstall tunnels have only one entrance and exit, typically buried in the wilderness or among the remnants of old settlements. Not especially convenient! They also have no system for ventilation, and some flood with water. These tunnels are not places where anyone would be able to hang out for long.

Adding to the mystery is the complete lack of archaeological and historical evidence. Their construction is not officially recorded anywhere, and no human artifacts seem to have been left behind in the tunnels themselves.

What are some of the theories? Some say they were used for storage. Not likely given they were small, dirty, wet, and difficult to get in and out of. Another theory is they were places where people hid from marauders. The small size of the tunnels, and lack of oxygen inside, would make this fairly impractical, too. Not to mention with only one way in and out, if their hiding place was ever discovered it would become a tomb rather than a way of escape. Some think the tunnels might have spiritual significance; a place for the souls of the deceased, or perhaps even dark spirits to dwell. Austrian folklore gives goblins the credit for their existence.

I kind of wish I’d known about these erdstall tunnels when I lived in Germany so I could experience one for myself. In reality though, I’m horribly claustrophobic, so you’d have to practically kill me to get me in there. I’d no doubt peer with wonder into the small, dark entranceway, get a nose-tingling whiff of damp earth, take a couple of pictures, and that would be the extent of my adventure.

Mysteries such as these are a wonderful source of inspiration, though. One can imagine the erdstall tunnels weren’t carved by people at all (hence the lack of artifacts or construction records), but by serpents, or maybe hosts of dark fae. Austrian folklore could have it right after all.

In my own stories, I reference secret underground libraries which are connected by hidden tunnels and entranceways. Very few know they exist, and those who do are bound by oaths of silence. It is in my imaginary world that I can fill in my own answers to these questions that no one has been able to fully resolve in the real world. I can turn thousands of seemingly purposeless, dank tunnels into a vital network. Some of them are perhaps decoys, built only to confuse and misdirect. Yet others lead to glorious, irreplaceable collections of the world’s most sacred artifacts.

What do you imagine the erdstall tunnels were for? Who built and used them? You don’t have to be a writer to dream up a few ideas. It seems that even the historians are having to use their imaginations on this one.


Click to view the rest of this newsletter. I won’t always post peeks on my blog, so subscribe to make sure you don’t miss an edition. They’ll get sent right to your email twice a month, and if you change your mind, you can unsubscribe at any time.

 

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.

 

Fantasy Art Friday

Get inspired with this week’s Fantasy Art Friday, where fun fantasy artwork is combined with a writing prompt to get your creative juices flowing.


He has been on the road for more than a week now, alone. He’d slipped out in the dark of night with his most trusted steed, his sword, and just enough food and money to get by. All else was left behind, and gladly. With his head hung low and buried in the hood of his cloak, he managed to go unrecognized long enough to get into the mountains. His steps will be harder to trace on this stony, frozen path, so long as the wind and snow continue to cover them.

Every once in a while he peers back the way he has come, just to be sure he’s not being followed. No doubt by now everyone has been alerted to his flight, but he took care of that too, strategically planting clues intended to misdirect. By the time they figure out they’re going in circles he should be well away, and anything left of his trail gone cold. If he’s careful, and wise, he just might make it to the other side.

Who is this man, and where is he going? The rest of this story is up to you...


Did you miss last week’s Fantasy Art post? Find it here.

“Alone in the Mountains” by Daria Rashev