Medieval Monday: Washing Laundry

Whenever I’m tempted to gripe about doing piles of laundry, I remind myself that I really don’t have it all that bad. After all, the washer and dryer are really doing most of the work. I’m just moving the piles around and folding them. I don’t even have to move them that far—from one floor of my house to the next. Our medieval counterparts certainly didn’t have that luxury, or many others that we don’t give much thought to. So in honor of my growing laundry pile, I thought today’s post would answer the question of “how would I have done it back then.”

First, I would have needed a source of water. The most common source would have been a nearby body of water—preferably moving water, like a river or stream if there wasn’t a community wash house. Laundry would have to be hauled there and either beat against rocks, or with a washing bat or beetle. These were basically sticks used for moving cloth around in the water or for hitting it. In time, the fabric would come clean, even without the use of soaps.

Laundry was unquestionably women’s work. It therefore became a social event where women could exchange news, information, and plenty of gossip. Doing laundry was time consuming and labor intensive, so it was not something that was done every day, or even once a week. If you were wealthy, you might have an extensive enough wardrobe to change into clean clothes more often. The poor did not have that advantage. Laundry was saved up and washed once a month—maybe once every several months.

Undergarments were washed more frequently, sometimes in a wooden tub at home. Delicate fabrics and expensive garments would be soaked in tubs as well rather than being beaten against rocks or with beetles. A plant called soapwort or other herbs like marjoram could be used in the water to clean and deodorize fabric. To brighten white cloth, lye was used (a mixture including ash and urine). Plenty of advice and recipes still exist that tell how to remove stains, some as simple as soaking the stain in verjuice, others far more complex and involving many days-worth of work.

Washed laundry was dried on a pole in front of the fire, hung outdoors on bushes, ropes, or wooden frames, or laid out flat on the grass. The sun had a natural bleaching affect on white linens. If there was enough space, laundry would be dried indoors in poor weather.

Robes and cloaks were sometimes rubbed with wax to weatherproof them, but this process would have been too expensive for peasants who would have worn felted wool instead. Outer garments were not washed very often. They would simply be shaken or beaten with a brush or a bundle of twigs to get rid of dust and dirt, then re-worn until they could eventually be washed.

Here are some fourteenth century laundry instructions from A Medieval Home Companion, written down by an elderly Frenchman to his new young wife. (This is a fascinating book that I highly recommend if you can get a copy of it.)

“If there is any spot of oil or other grease, this is the remedy: Take urine and heat it until it is warm, and soak the spot in it for two days. Then, without twisting it, squeeze out the part of the dress with the spot. If the spot is not gone, have Dame Agnes the Beguine put it in other urine, beat in ox gall, and do as before. Or you can do this: Have fuller’s earth soaked in lye and then put it on the spot. Let it dry, and then rub it. If the earth doesn’t come off easily, have it moistened in the lye, let it dry again, and rub until it goes away. Or, if you don’t have any fuller’s earth, have ashes soaked in lye and put those well-moistened ashes on the spot. Or have very clean chicken feathers soaked in very hot water to get rid of any grease they have picked up. Wet them again in clean water, rub the spot on the dress well once more, and all the stains will go away.

To take stains out of dresses of silk, satin, camlet, silk damask, or other material: soak and wash the stain in verjuice and it will go away. Even though the dress is faded, the color will come back, although I don’t really believe this. Verjuice: At the time when the new verjuice is made, one should take a glass vial of it, without salt, and keep it, because it is useful for taking spots out of dresses and bringing back their color. It is always good, new or old.


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Medieval Monday: 900 Years Ago she was an Artist…

Monastic communities and illuminated manuscripts play important roles in my book series, so articles like this one always intrigue me. They give me glimpses into a reality that has long inspired my imagination and continues to fuel it. I can’t help but think, this woman could have been a real life version of my character Morganne, who loves and studies the ancient spiritual tomes of her world. The thought makes me want to read more history, look deeper…discover what life would have been like for someone like this woman who lived 900 years ago. I hope you are intrigued by this article too. Don’t hesitate to browse the Medieval Monday Index for more information about the real Middle Ages.


900 years ago she was artist – we know this because she has bits of blue stone in her teeth

A team of researchers examining the remains of a woman buried around the year 1100 AD have – to their surprise – discovered dozens of tiny bits of blue stone in her teeth. They soon realized that she was likely a painter of illuminated medieval manuscripts.

The discovery was made by an international team of researchers, including those from the University of York and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. They had been examining the remains of individuals who were buried in a medieval cemetery associated with a women’s monastery at the site of Dalheim in Germany. Few records remain of the monastery and its exact founding date is not known, although a women’s community may have formed there as early as the 10th century AD. The earliest known written records from the monastery date to 1244. The monastery is believed to have been home to about 14 religious women from its founding until its destruction by fire following a series of 14th century battles…

Continue reading: http://www.medievalists.net/2019/01/900-years-ago-she-was-artist/


 

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Medieval Monday: Game of Thrones and the Real Middle Ages

I will say up front that I do not watch Game of Thrones–I’ve seen enough of it from my husband’s binge-watching sessions to know that while the storyline is good, the visuals are just way too graphic for me. I found this article interesting anyway, because Game of Thrones is not the first book, movie, or TV series to paint an overly dark picture of the Medieval era.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t plenty of brutality and tragedy (as there is in any era), but there were also many peaceful days in between during which ordinary people lived out their lives, working the land, learning skills, plying trades, and raising families. European culture flourished, bringing us incredible architecture, art, music, scholarship, and other worthwhile things that have endured to the present day. With so much focus on the dark aspects of this time in history, it is my hope that in some small way I’m helping to bring a more complete picture into the light with my Medieval Monday series.

Anyway, enjoy the article, and don’t hesitate to browse the Medieval Monday Index while you’re here.


What The New Footage From Game Of Thrones Can Teach Us About The Real Middle Ages by Matthew Gabriele

HBO just reminded us that Winter is here. In its new trailer for 2019, fans of Game of Thrones were only offered a few seconds of what will happen in the coming season, the show’s final one. We see a meeting of fire and ice, dragons and wolves, as Daenerys Targaryen with Jon Snow meets Sansa Stark at Winterfell. From last season, we know what’s to come: the wallas with all walls, didn’t work and the great war between the living and the dead approaches.

Although none of us fans can know for certain what’s to come, it’s probably fair to guess that the season will be dark, that Westeros will be filled with violence, that there will be tragedy. How do we know this? For one, we’ve watched the show. But for another, the show plays off a popular conception of the medieval world as dark, treacherous, and violent. In other words, it uses our assumptions about the Middle Ages to help tell its story. And as a medievalist, and having taught a course on Game of Thrones at Virginia Tech since Winter 2015, I fight against these preconceptions whenever I teach.

How – and even if – to teach the relationship between a fantasy world such as Game of Thrones and the historical European Middle Ages has admittedly caused controversy among scholars. But to my mind, the fact that the show both reinforces and at the same time challenges our assumptions about the period is precisely what makes Game of Thrones so interesting.

The Middle Ages are known as the “Dark Ages” for a reason. It doesn’t have anything to do with the 12th century though. Instead, the idea came much later. During the Enlightenment, the medieval came to be known as the antithesis of the modern, a repository for whatever we considered “bad.” These thinkers built themselves up by tearing their medieval predecessors down. Basically, what they created was nostalgia, which can take 1 of 2 forms. First, it can believe that an ideal past has been lost and needs to be reclaimed. Second, it can say the past has no value and should be wholly discarded. The first is the friend of authoritarianism, while the second excuses modernity by placing all its sins in the past.

Game of Thrones relies upon that second kind of nostalgia, the one that my students so often bring with them to my courses. They have a set of preconceptions about what they’ll find in the Middle Ages…

Continue reading: https://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewgabriele/2019/01/13/game-of-thrones-real-middle-ages/#5b7aac4f43c7


 

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Medieval Monday: 10 Medieval Jobs that No Longer Exist

Today many people are concerned that their job or profession will become obsolete due to changing technology. In you go back to the Middle Ages you can find several occupations – some that involved a great deal of learning, and others that were a choice only for the desperate – that have disappeared. Many of these were also made redundant by technology. Here are ten of these jobs.

Alchemist

One of the main ‘scientific’ beliefs throughout the medieval world was that it was possible to change chemicals and metals. Scholars experimented with various processes and techniques to purify metals and convert them into new forms. One particular goal of medieval alchemists was to turn lead into gold or silver, but for others the objective was to create medicines to heal or sustain the human body.

Some of the leading scholars of the Middle Ages dabbled in alchemy, including Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon, but by the 17th century the ideas behind alchemy were gradually dismissed, and the science of chemistry replaced it.

Alewife

In medieval England, the profession of brewing was often dominated by women. In towns and villages women could be found running side-businesses in brewing and selling ale. As Judith M. Bennett explains, brewing was “a small-scale, low-investment, low-profit, low-skilled industry – suited especially well the economic needs of married women. Because ale soured quickly and transported poorly, it was unsuitable for large-scale, centralized businesses. As a result, wives who sought to sell ale on a modest and ad hoc basis could compete effectively in the trade.”

By the 15th century this practice began to fade, as brewing became more commercialized and society sought to restrict the independence of women.

Cup Bearer

An important position in many royal courts was to be the person that served the monarch their drinks. It was widely feared that one could easily be poisoned, so this person was responsible for making sure the drinks were safe, even if that meant tasting the beverages themselves. A king needed to be very trusting of his Cup Bearer, so the person with this job could be very influential in court politics.

Click to read more of this post, shared from medievalists.net


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Medieval Monday: The King

Sadly, this is the last episode of Medieval Lives with Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, but you can find all of my posts with these videos in the Medieval Monday index.

In this episode he talks about English kings, focusing specifically on the three Richards as examples. It is interesting to see how political spin hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years–just the motives and the methods of delivery. Can you really believe everything written in the history books? Perhaps not…

One interesting update, though. Since this was filmed, Richard III’s body has been found beneath a parking lot in the English city of Leicester. It was finally proved that he did suffer from scoliosis and had a slightly curved spine, but he did not have a hunchback as portrayed by Shakespeare  and others.


Learn more about the daily life in Middle Ages by browsing previous posts in the Medieval Monday Index.

Medieval Monday: The World’s Oldest Secular Norse Song

Listen To The World’s Oldest Known Secular Norse Song From Codex Runicus – A Medieval Manuscript Written In Runes

Codex Runicus, the medieval manuscript dating from circa 1300 AD, comprises around 202 pages composed in runic characters. Known for its content of the Scanian Law (Skånske lov) – the oldest preserved Nordic provincial law, the codex is also touted to be one of the very rare specimens that have its runic texts found on vellum (parchment made from calfskin). And interestingly enough, as opposed to Viking Age usage of runes, each of these ‘revivalist’ runes corresponds to the letters of the Latin Alphabet.

Now while a significant section of the Codex Runicus covers the Scanian Ecclesiastical Law (pertaining to Danish Skåneland), the manuscript also chronicles the reigns of early Danish monarchs and the oldest region along the Danish-Swedish border. But most interestingly, the last page of the codex also contains what can be defined as the oldest known musical notations written in Scandinavia, with their non-rhythmic style on a four-line staff.

One such Norse song verse, more famously known in modern Denmark as the first two lines of the folk song Drømde mig en drøm i nat (‘I dreamt a dream last night’), is presented in the video below, performed under the tutelage of renowned Old Norse expert – the ‘Cowboy Professor’ Dr. Jackson Crawford.

Read the full article on realmofhistory.com



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Medieval Monday: Lighting

With electricity still far in the future, Medieval lighting came in the form of fire. Rush lights were the simplest and cheapest form of lighting, though they weren’t particularly bright. Wild rushes were gathered, dried, then stripped of their skins. They were then soaked in animal fat, which left the rush itself to serve as a wick that could be lit. As many as needed were placed around the home to give off light.

Candles were the next step up from rush lighting—they were brighter and lasted longer than rushes.  Tallow candles were the most common type. These were made from tallow (animal fat) that was boiled and strained, turning creamy white once it had cooled and hardened again. The best type to use was from sheep, the next best from cows. Fiber strands were twisted into wicks that were dipped into the melted tallow over and over again until the candle shape was gradually formed. These types of wicks were not like modern ones that completely burn up as the wax melts away. They had to be trimmed at regular intervals. Tallow candles were easy to produce, but there were some drawbacks. The process of making, and burning, tallow candles was very smelly. These candles were also drippy and produced a lot of smoke that left soot stains on everything around them.

Though tallow candles could be made at home when animals were slaughtered, they were only made in large quantities by chandlers. The making of tallow candles and tallow soaps was often a side business of butchers. Though their products were in high demand, these shops were widely avoided due to the unpleasant odors they produced.

The nobility and the church had access to a different type of candle that was more expensive and of far better quality than tallow—beeswax. They burned the brightest of all the candle types, and lasted longer. They were produced in a similar way than tallow, but did not smell and burned clean. Just as making tallow candles were a natural side business for butchers, beeswax candles were often made by bee keepers. Since these types of candles were favored by the nobility, and burned exclusively by the church, making beeswax candles was a highly profitable business.

Oil lamps were also used for lighting, but only in southern regions of Europe where oil was easy to come by, and the weather was warm enough that it would not solidify.

Some candles could also be used as clocks. They would be made to a specific thickness, and the person watching them would have to know how far down they would burn in a certain amount of time.

Larger than candles or lamps were torches, which could be fixed to walls, carried, or staked into the ground. They were typically made from branches or bound sticks made of green or wet wood that would not quickly burn down. Rags would be bound on one end, then soaked in something flammable like pitch, oil, animal fat, or tree sap. Like tallow, torches did not burn clean and had an odor that varied depending on which flammable substance was used. Torches gave off a lot of light by comparison to candles, but had to be replaced often as they burned out.

I’ve included a short video that talks about medieval chandlers and the process of making candles. Some of the information is repetitive, but it adds some nice visuals. Enjoy!


Learn more about the daily life in Middle Ages by browsing previous posts in the Medieval Monday Index.