Medieval Monday: Labors of January

winter-snowball-fightWinter had tightened its grip, and the most important labor of January was staying warm! With only hearth fires for heat, the cold was a very real danger for everyone, but especially the young, the elderly, and the poor. There were still several feasting days to be celebrated, which continued to be a blessing for those who needed help getting through winter. January 6th, the day after Epiphany, was the Feast of the Three Kings. Christian tradition was often blended with agricultural ceremonies rooted in pagan tradition, even though the Church frowned on these practices. The plow and distaff, symbols of male and female societal roles, were both honored. There might be plow races, or processions though villages. The plows might also be pulled around a bonfire to bring good luck for the new year. Actual plowing could not begin until after Candlemas (February 2nd) which was the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. At that point, the winter respite from the fields was officially over, and they were tilled in preparation for spring planting.

harvestingclayThere were other things to do during the month of January. On the coldest days, medieval people completed any type of work that could be done indoors. Spinning thread, weaving, repairing hunting and fishing nets, making utensils, and repairing or sharpening tools were among them. With spring not so far into the future, all the necessary farming equipment would need to be in working order. On milder days, people could do some outdoor work, such as gathering firewood, mending fences, pruning vines, or using a hoe to harvest clay from riverbanks.


 

Enjoy one last “Tales from the Green Valley” episode. We’ve now followed this team of experts through an entire year on a medieval farm, and the information given has been amazing. Lots of really fascinating details in this one, including tending cattle, harvesting timber supplies, repairing tools, building work, hedge laying, breaking ice, mucking the cow shed, harvesting oak apples (for dye or ink), making ink, repairing shoes, preparing and using medicines, distilling water, preparing the field for spring, harvesting kale, winter foods and recipes.

Though I won’t be posting these at the start of each month anymore, you can still watch the videos anytime,  or read my labors of the months posts, by using the Medieval Monday Index.

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.

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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.


Below I have two videos to share. One is very short and shows 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. The other is December’s Tales from the Green Valley in which the team covers the topics of making preparations for Christmas, building a wood storage hovel, sewing, clothing, threshing peas, making mince pies and other Christmas foods, and decorating for Christmas. Some of the Christmas traditions (like the Yule log) are from a bit beyond the medieval period, but many of the other things they describe would have been the same. Enjoy!

 

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.


Enjoy another Tales from the Green Valley. Fair warning, some may find the images in this episode disturbing as they slaughter, butcher, and prepare one of the farm pigs just as it would have been done hundreds of years ago. 

In this month’s episode: Finishing the cow shed, making wattle and daub walls, pig slaughter, butchering, and cooking. Gathering medlars, scrubbing a table with salt, roof thatching.

 

Medieval Monday: ‘Broken on the Wheel’

Archaeologists discover medieval man ‘broken on the wheel’

An archaeological dig in Milan has uncovered the remains of a young man who suffered massive injuries, likely caused by torture and execution while being ‘broken on wheel’.

The team of researchers from Università degli Studi di Milano were examining the remains of 56 individuals that were discovered buried at San Ambrogio square in the Italian city of Milan. These skeletons date from between the era of the Roman Empire to the sixteenth-century, but their focus was on individual found with two buckles. Radiochemical tests were performed, which dates the body to between the years 1290 and 1430. He was between 17 and 20 years old when he died.

The individual was found with numerous wounds, which the researchers noticed as having a very specific distribution. All the long bones on his forearms and legs were fractured in a way that the weapon hit the bones perpendicularly. He also had blunt force injuries to his face, a stab wound that hit his vertebrae, and a deep fracture at the back of his skull, which the researchers believe was caused during a clumsy attempt to decapitate him.

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

Medieval Monday: The Service of Magic

In medieval England magic was a service industry used by rich and poor alike

by: Emily Costello

Chances are that when you hear the words “medieval magic”, the image of a witch will spring to mind: wizened old crones huddled over a cauldron containing unspeakable ingredients such as eye of newt. Or you might think of people brutally prosecuted by overzealous priests. But this picture is inaccurate.

To begin with, fear of witchcraft – selling one’s soul to demons to inflict harm on others – was more of an early modern phenomenon than a medieval one, only beginning to take hold in Europe at the tail end of the 15th century. This vision also clouds from view the other magical practices in pre-modern England.

Magic is a universal phenomenon. Every society in every age has carried some system of belief and in every society there have been those who claim the ability to harness or manipulate the supernatural powers behind it. Even today, magic subtly pervades our lives – some of us have charms we wear to exams or interviews and others nod at lone magpies to ward off bad luck. Iceland has a government-recognised elf-whisperer, who claims the ability to see, speak to, and negotiate with the supernatural creatures still believed to live in Iceland’s landscape.

While today we might write this off as an overactive imagination or the stuff of fantasy, in the medieval period magic was widely accepted to be very real. A spell or charm could change a person’s life: sometimes for the worse, as with curses – but equally, if not more often, for the better.

Magic was understood to be capable of doing a range of things, from the marvellous to the surprisingly mundane. At the mundane end, magic spells were in many ways little more than a tool. They were used to find lost objects, inspire love, predict the future, heal illnesses and discover buried treasure. In this way, magic provided solutions to everyday problems, especially problems that could not be solved through other means.

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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: 14th Century Life

What Was Life Like in 14th Century England?

by: Brumafriend

1__S_39-gF6nJ5GVhvZLV6YQThe 14th century was, both worldwide and in relations to England, a century of social turmoil, filled with plague, famine, and an unprecedented desire for social mobility. By the end of the 1300s, the long-standing system of serfdom which had previously been the core of English socioeconomic and class relations had started to irreversibly deteriorate. The key turning point was the Black Death of 1348 (which began the year prior in Europe) and saw the foundations of English society shake. Therefore, it makes sense to look at the 14th century not as one unit but rather as two, with the plague as a divider.

Before the plague, English life for the peasant class remained fairly unchanged from what it had been for hundreds of years. Medical technology and practices had been slowly improving over time, although more so in the Islamic world than in Europe, and many afflictions — such as the Black Death itself — were explained as divine punishment or by superstition, rather than any biological cause. England’s population had grown rapidly from the year 1200, rising to 5 million by 1400. This increase was largely spurred on by, and subsequently encouraged, the prosperity of England’s agricultural economy — which still made up a very rural society — caused by the adoption of crop rotation techniques. This, in turn, led to an increase in the number of towns. Although many were small, others, such as Norwich, consisted of around 5,000 inhabitants and the biggest cities, such as London, neared 40,000 in population. This meant that society was no longer merely agricultural and other professions, such as in the exportation of wool and cloth, could be pursued.

The Church was also a prevalent force at this time as England was still highly Christian (as a result of, and certainly a cause of, scientific ignorance) and this constituted a significant part of a peasant’s life. A peasant was under an economic obligation to pay a tax (known as a ‘tithe’ to the Church), which came in the form of 10% of the value of the land that he farmed. At a time when peasants were struggling to get by, this tax was deeply unpopular, although it was rarely challenged due to the deep-set nature of religious faith. Indeed, the majority of the population were not even able to comprehend the words delivered to them from the Bible each Sunday, as it was not given in the vernacular and the vast majority of the lower classes could only speak English. Most were also illiterate, which meant that independent religious practice was difficult and possession of books was pointless as well as expensive. At this time, books were often as much a testament of wealth as an intellectual endeavour. Books were incredibly expensive, especially as the printing press would not be invented until 1440, and were often encrusted with jewellery to signify the wealth of its owner.

Whilst life was certainly hard for a 14th-century commoner, with a bad harvest being the difference between life and death, there was still time for pastimes. Such activities included gambling, such as dice games, and playing Chess. Alternatively, inns had, since their emergence during the 12th and 13th centuries, increased in number throughout the country, offering commonfolk an opportunity to relax and converse with others. The exact hobbies and feelings of peasants during this time remains somewhat unknown due to the lack of credible primary sources as a result of a high illiteracy rate and the gradual decomposition and deterioration of the few physical first-hand accounts, which were often lost or discarded.

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