Medieval Monday: Work and Adolescence

Screen Shot 2019-08-13 at 10.40.34 AMWORK AND ADOLESCENCE IN THE MIDDLE AGES (BY MELISSA SNELL)

Few medieval teenagers enjoyed a formal education as it was rare in the Middle Ages. As a result, not all adolescents went to school, and even those who did were not wholly consumed by learning. Many teens worked, and just about all of them played.

 

Working at Home

Teens in peasant families were most likely to work instead of attending school. Offspring could be an integral part of a peasant family’s income as productive workers contributing to the farming operation. As a paid servant in another household, frequently in another town, an adolescent could either contribute to the total income or simply cease using the family resources, thereby increasing the overall economic standing of those he left behind.

In the peasant household, children provided valuable assistance to the family as early as age five or six. This assistance took the form of simple chores and did not take up a great deal of the child’s time. Such chores included fetching water, herding geese, sheep or goats, gathering fruit, nuts, or firewood, walking and watering horses, and fishing. Older children were often enlisted to care for or at least watch over their younger siblings.

At the house, girls would help their mothers with tending a vegetable or herb garden, making or mending clothes, churning butter, brewing beer and performing simple tasks to help with the cooking. In the fields, a boy no younger than 9-years-old and usually 12 years or older, might assist his father by goading the ox while his father handled the plow.

As children reached their teens, they might continue to perform these chores unless younger siblings were there to do them, and they would most definitely increase their workloads with more demanding tasks. Yet the most difficult of tasks were reserved for those with the most experience; handling a scythe, for example, was something that took great skill and care, and it was unlikely for an adolescent to be given the responsibility of using it during the most pressing times of harvest.

Work for teenagers was not limited to within the family; rather, it was fairly common for a teen to find work as a servant in another household.

 

Service Work

In all but the poorest medieval households, it would not be surprising to find a servant of one variety or another. Service could mean part-time work, day labor, or working and living under the roof of an employer. The type of work that occupied a servant’s time was no less variable: there were shop servants, craft assistants, laborers in agriculture and manufacturing, and, of course, household servants of every stripe.

Although some individuals took on the role of servant for life, service was frequently a temporary stage in the life of an adolescent. These years of labor—often spent in another family’s home—gave teenagers the chance to save up some money, acquire skills, make social and business connections, and absorb a general understanding of the way society conducted itself, all in preparation for entry into that society as an adult.

A child might possibly enter service as young as age seven, but most employers sought older children to hire for their advanced skills and responsibility. It was far more common for children to take up positions as servants at age ten or twelve. The amount of work carried out by younger servants was necessarily limited; pre-adolescents are rarely if ever suited to heavy lifting or to tasks that require fine manual dexterity. An employer who took on a seven-year-old servant would expect the child to take some time learning his tasks, and he would probably start with very simple chores.

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Medieval Monday: Fresh Meat and Fish

The availability and use of fresh meat, poultry and fish in the Middle Ages (By Melissa Snell)

Depending on their status in society and where they lived, medieval people had a variety of meats to enjoy. But thanks to Fridays, Lent, and various days deemed meatless by the Catholic Church, even the wealthiest and most powerful people did not eat meat or poultry every day. Fresh fish was fairly common, not only in coastal regions, but inland, where rivers and streams were still teeming with fish in the Middle Ages, and where most castles and manors included well-stocked fish ponds.

Those who could afford spices used them liberally to enhance the flavor of meat and fish. Those who could not afford spices used other flavorings like garlic, onion, vinegar and a variety of herbs grown throughout Europe. The use of spices and their importance has contributed to the misconception that it was common to use them to disguise the taste of rotten meat. However, this was an uncommon practice perpetrated by underhanded butchers and vendors who, if caught, would pay for their crime.

Meat in Castles and Manor Homes

 

A large portion of the foodstuffs served to the residents of castles and manor homes came from the land on which they lived. This included wild game from nearby forests and fields, meat and poultry from the livestock they raised in their pastureland and barnyards, and fish from stock ponds as well as from the rivers, streams and seas. Food was used swiftly — usually within a few days, and sometimes on the same day — and if there were leftovers, they were gathered up as alms for the poor and distributed daily.

Occasionally, meat procured ahead of time for large feasts for the nobility would have to last a week or so before being eaten. Such meat was usually large wild game like deer or boar. Domesticated animals could be kept on the hoof until the feast day drew near, and smaller animals could be trapped and kept alive, but big game had to be hunted and butchered as the opportunity arose, sometimes from lands several days’ travel away from the big event. There was often concern from those overseeing such victuals that the meat might go off before it came time to serve it, and so measures were usually taken to salt the meat to prevent rapid deterioration. Instructions for removing outer layers of meat that had gone bad and making wholesome use of the remainder have come down to us in extant cooking manuals.

Be it the most sumptuous of feasts or the more modest daily meal, it was the lord of the castle or manor, or the highest-ranking resident, his family, and his honored guests who would receive the most elaborate dishes and, consequently, the finest portions of meat. The lower the status of the other diners, the further away from the head of the table, and the less impressive their food. This could mean that those of low rank did not partake of the rarest type of meat, or the best cuts of meats, or the most fancily-prepared meats; but they ate meat nonetheless.

Meat for Peasants and Village-Dwellers

Peasants rarely had much fresh meat of any kind. It was illegal to hunt in the lord’s forest without permission, so, in most cases, if they had game it would have been poached, and they had every reason to cook it and dispose of the remains the very same day it was killed. Some domestic animals such as cows and sheep were too large for everyday fare and were reserved for the feasts of special occasions like weddings, baptisms, and harvest celebrations.

Chickens were ubiquitous, and most peasant families (and some city families) had them; but people would enjoy their meat only after their egg-laying days (or hen-chasing days) were over. Pigs were very popular, and could forage just about anywhere, and most peasant families had them. Still, they weren’t numerous enough to slaughter every week, so the most was made of their meat by turning it into long-lasting ham and bacon. Pork, which was popular in all levels of society, would be an unusual meal for peasants.

Fish could be had from the sea, rivers and streams, if there were any nearby, but, as with hunting the forests, the lord could claim the right to fish a body of water on his lands as part of his demesne. Fresh fish was not often on the menu for the average peasant.

A peasant family would usually subsist on pottage and porridge, made from grain, beans, root vegetables and pretty much anything else they could find that might taste good and provide sustenance, sometimes enhanced with a little bacon or ham.

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Medieval Monday: Undergarments

This may seem like a strange little topic, but it came up this week as a curiosity question I wanted answered for my new work-in-progress. What was meant to be a quick search, for a quick and easy answer, turned out to be more interesting than I anticipated. Today I’ll be sharing a post instead of making my own because this site really did a good job of addressing the topic. I hope you’ll click and read the whole thing through–I was surprised at how much I didn’t know!


What Underwear Was Like in Medieval Times by Melissa Snell

What did medieval men wear under their clothes? Medieval women?

In imperial Rome, both men and women were known to wear simply wrapped loin-cloths, probably made from linen, under their outer garments. In addition, women might wear a breast band called a strophiumor mamillare, made from linen or leather. There was, of course, no universal rule in undergarments; people wore what was comfortable, available, or necessary for modesty — or nothing at all. Individuals competing in sports, like the women depicted in the mosaic shown here, would have benefited from confining garments.

It’s entirely possible that the use of these undergarments continued into medieval times (especially the strophium, or something similar), but there is little direct evidence to support this theory. People didn’t write much about their underwear, and natural (as opposed to synthetic) cloth doesn’t usually survive for more than a few hundred years. Therefore, most of what historians know about medieval undergarments has been pieced together from period artwork and the occasional archaeological find.

One such archaeological find took place in an Austrian castle in 2012. A cache of feminine delicates was preserved in a sealed-off vault, and the items included garments very similar to modern-day brassieres and underpants. This exciting find in medieval underwear revealed that such garments were in use as far back as the 15th century. The question remains as to whether they were used in earlier centuries, and if it was only the privileged few who could afford them.

In addition to loincloths, medieval men were known to wear an entirely different type of underpants.

Underpants

Medieval men’s underpants were fairly loose drawers known as braies, breeks,or breeches. Varying in length from upper-thigh to below the knee, braies could be closed with a drawstring at the waist or cinched with a separate belt around which the top of the garment would be tucked. Braies were usually made of linen, most likely in its natural off-white color, but they could also be sewn from finely woven wool, especially in colder climes.

In the Middle Ages, braies were not only used as underwear, they were frequently worn by laborers with little else when doing hot work. Those depicted here fell well below the knees, but were tied to the wearer’s waist to keep them out of the way.

No one really knows whether or not medieval women wore underpants before the 15th century. Since the dresses medieval women wore were so long, it could be very inconvenient to remove underwear when answering nature’s call; on the other hand, some form of snug underpants could make life a little easier once a month. There’s no evidence one way or the other, so it’s entirely possible that, at times, medieval women wore loincloths or short braies. We just don’t know for sure.

Keep Reading Here: https://www.thoughtco.com/medieval-underwear-1788621


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