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: The Thrill of The Hunt

“The time of the hunter is without idleness and without evil thoughts…hunters live in this world more joyfully than any other men. For when the hunter rises in the morning he sees a sweet and fair morn and clear weather and bright and he heareth the song of the small birds…and when the sun is arisen he shall see fresh dew on the small twigs and grasses.” – Edward of Norwich, from his book The Master of Game written in the early 1400s.

hunting dogsLast week’s post was about the pleasure gardens of the wealthy. Another leisure activity enjoyed by the well-to-do in summer was hunting. Aside from the practical aspect of supplying food, it had a dual purpose of providing sport and keeping men trained and fit for warfare. Hunting was not a spontaneous activity, but a social event, carefully planned and organized by servants. The most significant hunts were those for stag, which took place during the summer when the beasts were in their prime.

medieval hunt

A well planned hunt was broken up into different stages. Dogs would first be used to track the quarry, with a few pursuing huntsman leaving branches as markers to show the way. They would then return to the main hunting party, which would be picnicking leisurely in a clearing. This part of the hunt was something women often took part in, and enjoyed until the hunt was completed. Though there were some women who were hunters in their own right ,and would continue on with the rest of the hunting party. Once a trail was established, the whole party would set out with the dogs at the lead. The hunters communicated with each other by using curved hunting horns, and with the dogs by using special shouts and calls that the dogs were trained to understand. The dogs would eventually surround the animal and bay until the rest of the hunting party could catch up. While it might seem that the prey being hunted stood no chance, there was always danger involved for the hunting party as well as the dogs. The hunted animal, once cornered, could quickly turn on them, killing the dogs and attacking the huntsmen.

Cornering a stag was a particularly significant event. A long note would be sounded from a horn. This was called The Blowing of the Death, and signaled the animal’s defeat. From that point a very careful ritual began, during which the animal was cut up in a particular way and prepared for transport home.

Hunt 2“The heart, lungs, liver and windpipe were given to the hounds, while the right forefoot of the animal was presented to the most eminent person present, or to the lord of the hunt. Stags have a heart bone, a piece of hard red cartilage found in the heart which was considered to have medicinal properties; it was prized and often given to a pregnant woman. When the day’s hunting was over, the party would return in triumph, with the deer in a cart, for a great feast in the lord’s castle.”

Stags were not the only animals hunted, and each animal was pursued in its own season.  Popular quarry were deer, boar, bear, wild cats, partridge, otter, fox, wolf, hare, and pheasant. Bear, deer, and wild boar were particularly sought after and reserved by the lord or king. Poaching on a noble’s estate was a grave offense that might provoke harsh punishments against those caught.

Medieval Monday: Pleasure Gardens

pleasure gardenThe last couple of posts have been about summer activities in the Middle Ages, from the hard labor of harvesting crops, to the diversions of games. There was another summer pleasure for those in the upper classes of medieval society; recreational gardens. Not every garden was planted strictly for food or herbs, nor even for meditation as some of the monastic gardens were. Some were kept purely for pleasure, and they were designed “not for fruitfulness, but to delight the senses of sight and smell.”

They were usually walled and had a park-like atmosphere, possibly including a structure meant to be a summer home, where the nobility could go to find relaxation away from the main manor or castle. Very large estates might even have separate gardens, one for the lord or king, and one for the lady or queen.

Pleasure gardens had a diversity of trees, not only for the purpose of giving shade, but also to enhance the aroma of the garden with the perfume of flowers, or of ripening fruits. Winding paths might be edged by sweet smelling herbs, like sage and basil, mixed in with fragrant flowers. There would have been no shortage of things to look at. Vibrant colors were everywhere. Tendrils of vine curled around trees, and up stone walls. Trellises and latticework supported climbing flowers, and formed archways or covered paths.

playing games in gardenWhen one grew tired of walking, or simply wanted to be still and immerse oneself in the surrounding beauty, there were plenty of places to sit. Marble, stone, or wooden benches were common, but turfed seats (excedra) were also a feature of pleasure gardens. They could be made entirely of sod, or as part of a raised flower bed, with outer walls made of wood, brick, or wattle. Tables for eating, or for playing games, would also be available as part of the garden. Eating outdoors in summer seems to have been a popular activity.

medieval garden2Most pleasure gardens also had at least one water feature; a fountain, stream, reflective pool, or a pond stocked with fish. Birds, rabbits, ducks, geese, and other types of animals would have roamed freely. Pleasure gardens sometimes had labyrinths, in which one walked a path in a set pattern, with one entrance and one exit. (This is different from a maze, in which one can get lost, with many paths meant to deceive.)  A labyrinth might be laid with stone, cut turf, or have its edges defined by short to knee-high plants. It served not only as a pleasant diversion, but also helped take up a fair amount of space in a very large garden.

love in gardenLook through manuscripts from the medieval period, and you will find plenty of poetry and lavish illuminations of lovers enjoying medieval pleasure gardens, which were often the setting for flirtatious games and mild horseplay between men and women.

 

“Under the green leaves, on the soft turf beside a chattering brook with a clear spring near at hand, I found a rustic hut set up. Gontier and Dame Helen were dining there, on fresh cheese, milk, butter, cheesecake, cream, curds, apples, nuts, plums, pears; they had garlic and onions and crushed shallots, on crusty black bread with coarse salt to give them a thirst. They drank from the jug and the birds made music to cheer the hearts of both lover and lass, who next exchanged their loving kisses on mouth and nose, the smooth face and the bearded.”
– Philippe de Vitry, 14th century

 

Medieval Monday: Let the Games Begin!!

“Look in the streets and behold the little boys,
How in fruit-season for joy the sing and hop.”
– Alexander Barclay (medieval poet)

medieval chessI mentioned in a previous post that summer was not only a time for hard work, but also games and other enjoyable activities. Some of these we still recognize and play today, including chess, backgammon, and “draughts,” known to us as checkers. These could be set up on tables under the trees or played indoors. Other common table games were “knucklebones” (throwing dice), “fox & geese” (a strategy game), and “hazard” (a predecessor to craps). Skittles was the predecessor to bowling and was played either outdoors or indoors.

games_smStoolball was an early form of cricket, hurling (or shinty) was the medieval version of hockey, and shovelboard was much like the present day game of shuffleboard.  There were a variety of competitive sporting competitions, including “gameball” (football), archery, and quarter-staff contests. There were games of stickball, throwing horseshoes, knives, hammers, axes, and stones, and using slingshots and catapults to hurl objects beyond a mark or at a target. These activities seem to have been enjoyed by adults as well as children.

John Stow (16th Century England) wrote, “On holidays all the summer the boys play at archery practice, running, jumping, wrestling, putting the stone, sending missiles attached with thongs beyond a mark, and dueling with bucklers. The girls Cytherea leads in dancing until moonrise, and the earth is beaten with the lively foot.”

fruitChildren still made their own amusements, not all of them good ones. French poet Froissart noted that he amused himself as a child by tying threads to captured butterflies so that he could control where they flew. Stealing fruit was a popular pastime, and the pits or seeds could be used as counters for games or as jacks. John Lydgate, a 15th Century monk and poet, admitted to such behavior in his youth. “I ran into gardens, where I stole apples; I spared neither hedge nor wall in gathering fruit. I was more ready to pick grapes from other people’s vines than to say Matins.” There were also a wide variety of communal children’s games. Unfortunately, the rules of how to play most of them have been lost to time. Floating objects down streams, swimming, and blowing soap bubbles were common summer activities for children.

If you’re a game aficionado and would like to learn more about medieval games, and maybe even bring a few of them back into the present, I’m including links to some fantastic resources I found. I even came across a short video of someone playing medieval skittles—which just goes to show, people will record and upload just about anything…

Lots of medieval games (33 different ones with directions for each!): http://www-cs.canisius.edu/~salley/SCA/Games/
Fox and Geese: http://www.mastersgames.com/rules/fox-geese-rules.htm
Gameball: http://www-cs.canisius.edu/~salley/SCA/Games/football.html

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!