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.

 

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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.

 

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: 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: The Labors of December

winter-scene-2In the cold days of December, the fields were finally quiet, with the ground too frozen to work. Animals were taken care of, to ensure they would not only survive the harsh months to come, but that they would be healthy on spring’s arrival. After all, they would be needed to work. In bad weather, animals would need to be brought indoors and fed straw mixed with other nutrients such as corn stubble, or pea pods.  Other outdoor work consisted of mostly repair and reconstruction. Timber was cut, and fences and walls mended. If autumn rains had eroded the banks of the mill pond, they would need to be fixed as well.

cooking2

 

Most work had to be done indoors. Carving wood became a common winter activity–people made useful items like bowls, spoons, and cups. They repaired farming tools and household equipment. Baskets, nets, and harnesses were woven out of rushes or reeds. Women spent a good amount of time spinning thread, weaving, and sewing–making new garments and mending torn ones.

Women would also be carefully managing supplies of food; doing their best to feed hungry families even though the fresh foods gathered or harvested in autumn were now beginning to run out. Most peasant families were surviving on bread and pottage. The kettle was kept going over the fire day after day, the culinary monotony broken up by subtle changes to what was thrown into the pot. Common ingredients would have been beans, leeks, lentils, peas, onions, and herbs like parsley. Meat stock might be used for added nutrition, and possibly salted meat or dried fish on occasion. Eggs, cheese, and butter rounded out the winter diet on days when fasting wasn’t required.

In this video, you can really see how bowls were carved using traditional medieval tools. He makes this look so easy, but I’m sure it takes a lot of practice to learn this skill. Enjoy!

 

Medieval Monday: More Labors of November

 

November was a busy month in the medieval world. Last week’s post focused mainly on the fall slaughter and preservation of meat for the coming months, but there was much more to be done. Garlic and beans were sown in November–typically around the 20th, which was St. Edmund’s day–but the heavy labors of the field were largely complete. It was time to take on other onerous, but necessary  tasks such as digging ditches and trenches, and cleaning out the farm yard and latrines. Animal and human waste was spread as a fertilizer for gardens and fields. Walls would be checked and repaired in November, and molehills removed.

beehives2Beehives were given attention to make sure that the bees were getting enough nourishment to survive the coming winter. Young hives were in particular danger of starving since they’d had less time to store up food for themselves. According to Thomas Tusser (English farmer and poet), the weight of the hives should be checked and the bees fed if needed. “Go look to thy bees; if the hive be too light, set water and honey with rosemary dight. Which set in a dish full of sticks in the hive, from danger of famine, yea save them alive.”  

sheep-folds2As long as the winter didn’t become too harsh, many of the sheep could be held back from the fall slaughter. Sheep were able to live on terrain that was unsuitable for other animals. They had no trouble grazing in areas that were rocky and too difficult to clear for agricultural use. Sheep could also be used to crop the farming fields short, fertilizing them with droppings as they went. As the weather grew colder, their thick wool helped to protect them, as well as sheep folds, made out of wooden hurdles. These were woven panels, typically made out of hazel wood, which could be moved around as needed. They kept the sheep enclosed and blocked much of the wind at the same time.  If the weather turned too much for them to survive outdoors, or there was a shortage of food, the sheep could always be slaughtered later to provide an immediate source of fresh meat.

sheep-folds-3Like the bees, sheep required special attention in autumn, however. There were certain illnesses they were likely to contract, such as sheep scab and liver-fluke. Liver-fluke was caused by the sheep eating snails or mildew off of fallen leaves. Both illnesses were cured by applying tar–an important substance for medieval peasants to have on hand for a variety of uses, such as keeping the drafts out of homes, and making ships water tight.

 

Medieval Monday: The Labors of November

 

butcheringThe Anglo Saxons referred to November as the “blood month,” because it was time to begin slaughtering those animals which would not be kept through the winter. The traditional time for butchering animals was Martinmas (November 11th), though the butchering and processing of meat could continue through January depending on the weather. While some meat would be eaten fresh, it was important to have a supply of beef, pork, chevon (goat), and mutton (sheep) to last throughout the winter months. The preservation of meat was a laborious task. The flesh would have to be soaked in brine for days before it could be hung to dry and smoked. Meat might also be pickled, dried, or salted. Bacon in particular could be rubbed with spices and honey before it was smoked. Every part of the animal was used for something. The hides were used for making leather and parchment, hooves for gelatin, and bone and horns had a myriad of uses. Offal, blood, and bone marrow had to be eaten right away, and were turned into seasonal treats. Sausage and puddings were fall delicacies, providing a use for blood and organ meats. They were cooked with onions, garlic, and a variety of spices that made them especially tasty.

cookingWhen the fresh meat had run out, it was back to dried, salted meats, which weren’t especially nice to eat. Beef and mutton had to be simmered for a very long time to reduce the salt content enough to make them palatable. Bacon would be added directly to pottage, a thick stew that included vegetables, and grains like barley. Pottage was a staple food, often left cooking in a kettle over the fire for days on end, with the family simply adding water and ingredients to it as needed to keep it going.

Pork was the most popular preserved meat, especially for peasants. Pigs were easy to keep because they could forage for themselves, and after slaughter, their meat absorbed less of the preserving salt, helping it to retain more of its moisture. The leftover fat from slaughtering was used as lard, and also for the making of tallow candles. These would be vital to have for the dark, cold months ahead.

fattening-pigsThose pigs that weren’t being butchered (or at least not yet) were still being fattened in November. Acorns, beechnuts, hawes, hazelnuts, and other foods could still be actively foraged or collected for later feedings. But pigs weren’t the only ones out foraging for the last of nature’s bounty. Wild berries and apples, nuts, plums, and hips were great sources of nutrition—they just had to be collected. Coleworts (kohlrabi, cabbage, turnips) could also be harvested and stored someplace dark and cold. Sometimes they would simply be left in the ground and covered with a thick layer of straw. When needed, they could be uncovered, gathered, and eaten.

collecting-reedsNovember was also a time to collect reeds and osiers. These would be cured to use as thatch for roofs, or turned into baskets and nets for later use. Rushes became candle wicks, and nettles could be used instead of flax to make a durable thread. Bracken could be used as winter bedding for cattle. Firewood had to be collected as well, since much would be needed for heat and other purposes. There were restrictions, however. Dead wood could be gathered from the ground, or pruned from trees. People were not allowed to cut down live trees to use as firewood—this was a way to ensure that forested areas would continue to be a resource for many seasons to come.