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.


 

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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

 

 

 

 

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.


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Medieval Monday: Music

Medieval instruments illuminationAs Europe transitioned from the violence of the Dark Ages into the Middle Ages, music became increasingly important.  The earliest music was sung or played in unison, with harmonies gradually introduced over time.  Not all of it was religious in nature; the crusades brought in Arab love songs which were popular, and the French Troubadours and minstrels sang of romance and courtly love. These and other influences blended together with existing pagan and religious music traditions to create a rich, beautiful, musical heritage we can still enjoy.

A large entertainment industry grew up around music, for both the wealthy and the poor. Holidays, special celebrations, and festivals were filled with music, which was believed to aid in digestion. It was therefore frequently played at mealtimes and in between courses of food during feasts.

Medieval instruments2A variety of instruments were played, their varied sounds evoking the proper mood for each occasion.  Some we’re still familiar with today like the bagpipe, harp, harpsichord, lute, horn, whistle, bell, drum, and recorder.  Others are more obscure, such as the Kortholt, Lizard, Cornamuse, Shawm, and Zink. You can go to this site to see a more extensive list and hear samples of what these instruments actually sounded like.

And since no post on music should remain silent, I’ve included a YouTube video that plays an hour’s worth of authentic musical selections from the early Middle Ages.  Hope you enjoy it!

Medieval Monday: Solar Eclipse

Have your eclipse-watching glasses ready? Or maybe with all the warnings about faulty viewing glasses, you’re just going to hide from it and watch the event on NASA TV. Either way, today’s rare celestial event is fascinating; something beautiful and awe-inspiring…for us. But how did our medieval counterparts feel about it?

This might largely depend on who, and where, you were at the time an eclipse occurred. There were some, like an Anglo Saxon scholar named Bede, who understood that a solar eclipse happened because the moon was passing between the sun and the earth. In one of his scientific texts, he described how “a solar eclipse occurs when the Sun is hidden by the intervention of the Moon, and a lunar eclipse when the Sun, Earth and moon are aligned with Earth in the centre.”

But not everyone would have been knowledgeable about astronomy, and for those who weren’t, the darkening of the sky in the middle of the day would have been a frightening and ominous event. Even if they hadn’t read it for themselves, they would have been taught stories from the Bible concerning periods of darkness, such as during the ten plagues of Egypt, or when Christ died after being crucified. Apocalyptic accounts associated the darkening of the sun with the end of the world. “The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday” was a Middle English text which described the first sign of the apocalypse. The “Sun will give no light and will be cast down to Earth – while you now see it [the Sun] as pleasing and bright, it will become as black as coal.”

It didn’t help that these negative associations with eclipses, and the superstitions people held about them, seemed to be supported by significant events throughout medieval history. Louis of Bavaria, who was Charlemagne’s son and a great Emperor, died shortly after experiencing an eclipse. It was said that he died of fright. Adding to the distress of the Emperor’s death, his sons began a three-year dispute over his succession, which eventually led to the division of Europe into three large areas: Germany, Italy, and France.

The Anglo Saxons later linked an eclipse to a Viking invasion that occurred in 879.

Another solar eclipse happened on August 2, 1133, which could be seen in England and Germany. For both countries, it turned out to be a particularly bad omen. In England, the eclipse could be seen the day after King Henry I departed, and in fact he died in Normandy shortly after. The Germans blamed the same eclipse for the sack of Augsburg and the subsequent massacre of its people by Duke Frederick.

In 1140 William of Malmesbury wrote, ‘There was an eclipse throughout England, and the darkness was so great that people at first thought the world was ending.  Afterwards they realised it was an eclipse, went out, and could see the stars in the sky.  It was thought and said by many, not untruly, that the king would soon lose his power.”

An eclipse was even blamed for the fall of Constantinople in 1453, though in truth a postern gate had been carelessly left open, allowing Turkish soldiers entrance to the city.

There was also an element of inconvenience associated with the darkness of an eclipse. In the 11th century, one observer wrote, “the Sun was obscured for the space of three hours; it was so great that any people who were working indoors could only continue if in the meantime they lit lamps. Indeed some people went from house to house to get lanterns or torches. Many were terrified.”

I wonder if in the Middle Ages they knew to protect their eyes by not looking directly at an eclipse. Even now with all our knowledge, it is reported that about 100 people in the United States go completely blind each time there is an eclipse, and even more sustain damage to their retinas. I can imagine that having even a small number of people go blind in a medieval village or city after an eclipse occurs would only add to the sense of dread that fueled existing medieval beliefs and superstitions.


Want to know more about the Middle Ages? Check out the Medieval Monday Index for additional topics.

Medieval Monday: Fire! Fire!

Fire was crucial to survival in the Middle Ages. With electricity and gas-powered devices still far into the future, open flame was the most common source of heat for cooking, industry, and protection against the cold. Fires were a bit more difficult to set in an era before matches, particularly if everything was wet. Fire-steels, flint, or pyrite (struck against iron to produce a spark) might be carried in a leather pouch along with tinder. Tinder could be dried brush, straw, birch bark, rotten wood, pine needles, wood shavings, small twigs, or char-cloth. Char-cloth was made by briefly catching a bit of clean linen on fire, then putting the fire out. The resulting bit of blackened fiber could be saved for later and easily caught fire. Once a fire had been successfully lit, the resulting coals were protected with fire covers or other means. It was more convenient to revive a fire from still-hot coals than to start one from scratch.

As much as fire was a necessity to life, it was also a significant hazard in the medieval world. Stone and brick were prohibitively expensive building materials for the average person. Most buildings were made of wattle and daub with thatch roofs, and straw beds were often pulled close to hearth fires—all of these materials burned quickly once lit. In cities, the buildings were also built very close together, so if one building went up in flames, those near it would likely burn down as well. Many towns throughout Europe were at one point or other devastated by fire, whether by lit by accident, invaders, or even lightning. After 1213, London forbade thatch roofing in favor of shingles and tile, though other towns were slow to do the same.

Cook houses and kitchens were sometimes built separate from other structures because they were such a common fire hazard. Brewers and barbers were tightly regulated for the same reason. They were all required to have their buildings whitewashed and plastered, both inside and out. Fires posed not only a threat to people and livestock, but to the longevity of the community if large food stores and other structures or supplies vital to survival were destroyed.

Imagine trying to fight a large fire with no hydrants, hoses, firetrucks, extinguishers, or any other modern equipment. In some cities access to water was already at a premium, and even with a large water source close by, there was no fast delivery system. Firefighting equipment of the day was buckets of water, firehooks to pull down thatch and compromised buildings, and lots of manpower. Each home was required to have a full container of water ready and waiting outside the front door, and every citizen was obligated to assist when a fire broke out.

While stone buildings were safer, they were not impervious to fire, and even castles could be destroyed by it. Starting fires was often a tactic used by those laying siege to a castle or keep. Catapults could fling flaming objects over the stone walls in the hopes of catching something flammable on the other side. Once started, such fires were very difficult if not impossible to extinguish.

On a personal note, I once visited a still-habited castle in Germany (sadly, I cannot remember its name) which burned in modern times much as structures would have burned in the medieval era. A fire was started on a cold winter night when embers from an untended fireplace lit a rug on fire. There were no hydrants or sprinkler systems—the firemen had to draw water from the river below the castle. But it was so uncharacteristically cold that the water was freezing in the hoses on the way up. Like ancient times, citizens were called upon to try to save the castle by bucket-brigade.

I remember seeing aerial photographs immortalized on informational plaques at the site, showing the sections that had burned. The original walls remained standing upright, but everything inside of them was gone, right down to the bare earth below. The owners had spent many years after (along with a small fortune) restoring the castle, though countless irreplaceable pieces of history had been lost forever.

It has been close to 30 years since I visited that place on a leisurely afternoon, and enjoyed piece of Black Forest cake in the café just below it. But it obviously made a strong impression on me, as sights and tales of fires would have made an even stronger impression on those so vulnerable to them in the medieval era. Such events were in fact one of the ways medieval people marked the passage of time before watches and calendars were commonplace items. Everyone would remember the year the river flooded, or lightning hit the church steeple…or the local castle burned to the ground on a frigid, winter night.


Want to know more about the Middle Ages? Check out the Medieval Monday Index for additional topics.

Medieval Monday: Pottery

potter-at-wheelOne of the tasks medieval people could do any time of the year was dig for clay along river beds, which was used for pottery and tiles among other things. At least in the early medieval period, making pottery was mainly a rural activity. It was easiest to set up a workshop and kiln at or near the source of the materials needed. Large supplies of not just clay, but sand, wood to fuel the kiln, and water were needed. Access to a road or boats for transportation was also required.

potter-at-wheel-2Pottery making was typically handed down as a family industry among the peasantry. Though pottery was valued as a necessity of daily life, pottery makers were one of the lowest regarded craftsmen. It was often a secondary job, done after work in the fields was completed. Tools were simple, including combs, knives, and stamps to add decoration. Wheels were not commonly used until after the 12th century. In the mid and late Middle Ages, pottery making became a larger industry and was also done in towns and cities. Pottery began to include other materials such as wood and metal. Each region’s pottery had its own unique, easily distinguishable characteristics.

I found an in interesting video of medieval-style pottery being made for you to enjoy. He shows a really great piece that was apparently made for washing hands that I’d never heard of.