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.

Medieval Monday: Travel Distance in a Day

medieval-horseBack in January, I put together a post on horses and their role in medieval society, and another on travel. Today’s post is a bit unusual, but it relates to both of those. It will be particularly interesting to those of you who are also writers, and are constantly trying to figure out distances. How far can my character travel in a day by horseback, or on foot. How about an army? How does terrain and weather affect travel distances? I was thinking along these lines over the weekend while working on my next book. I did a little poking around online, and found this awesome thread in a forum from five years ago. The best credit I can give to the writers/researchers is to include the forum page and their forum usernames. But whoever they are, I thank them for putting this together, as I am guessing it took a lot of time and wasn’t all that easy. Even if you aren’t a writer, this is pretty fascinating stuff.


Anyway, here is the information, taken from I hope you find it interesting and possibly useful as well.

How far can a horse travel in one day: by fifty

Strangely I was doing a little research on how far a horse can realistically travel in one day and after much google-fu it seems to depend very much on the type of horse, conditioning (i.e. is it used for long distance travel all the time, rather than been standing in a field for months, or only used for racing, etc..) and condition (i.e. is it well fed and watered), as well as how heavy a load and the terrain involved.

…anyway this is the list of distances (in miles per day) I’ve come up with from a variety of sources that I shall be using personally:

On Roads / trails
Level or rolling terrain: 40
Hilly terrain: 30
Mountainous terrain: 20

Off-Road (or unkempt trails etc)
Level/rolling grasslands: 30
Hilly grasslands: 25
Level/rolling forest/thick scrub: 20
Very hilly forest/thick scrub: 15
Un-blazed Mountain passes: 10
Marshland: 10


  • An average quality horse, of a breed suitable for riding, conditioned for overland travel and in good condition.
  • Roads and trails are in good condition and up kept by whatever local authority deals with them.
  • Weather is good to fair, and travelers are riding for around ten hours a day.


Halve these distances for a horse pulling a cart or for a very heavily laden horse (e.g. a fully armoured knight who insists on wearing his armour all day rather than having it stowed on a second baggage horse as would be normal!).

Add half again for specially trained horses and riders who are prepared to push hard (rangers, scouts and messangers, etc…) though do bear in mind that horses cannot be pushed like this for more than a few days at a time. You can add a bit more again to this distance if the breed of horse is exceptionally suitable for this sort of thing, but I’d say 2 to 2.5 times the base is the absolute maximum without some sort of magical assistance!

Poor weather such as heavy rain or wind should reduce distances by about one quarter, and very poor conditions like heavy snow or gale force winds, etc.. should reduce distances by at least half if not more.

Finding a place to ford a small river or swimming your horse across a larger river should knock a couple of miles off the day’s journey, other unique obstacles might have a similar reduction. (as a guide remember a horse walks at around 4 miles per hour (compared to a human average of around 2.5 – 3mph) so if the obstacle takes half an hour to deal with that’s a couple of miles lost.

Out of interest

The Tevis cup is a 100-mile-in-one-day competition which goes over some quite rugged and mountainous trail terrain in the western states of USA… but they do it on very special Arab horses, with little or no baggage and even the winning times are usually around 17 hours!


How far can a person walk in one day: by fifty

Ok, well to weigh in in similar style to my earlier post…

Again from my reading around on the matter overland travel by foot again depends on a number of human factors such as the condition and experience of the walker as well as environmental and terrain considerations.

Equipment and preparedness would also have a bearing… Modern hiking boots, ultra-light camping equipment and freeze dried trail rations as compared to hob-nailed roman sandals and hard tack, or even pre-historic fur wrapped feet and foraging as you go would all have a dramatic effect on distances covered!

But working on an earliest Roman through to a latest pre-19thC sort of period, and with some other rather broad assumptions again (such as average human walking speed of 3 mph) this is the list of distances (in miles per day) that I would tentatively suggest:

On Roads / trails
Level or rolling terrain: 20
Hilly terrain: 14
Mountainous terrain: 9

Off-Road (or unkempt trails etc)
Level/rolling grasslands: 15
Hilly grasslands: 12
Level/rolling forest/thick scrub: 8
Very hilly forest/thick scrub: 6
Un-blazed Mountain passes: 6
Marshland: 5


  • A young to middle aged man of average height and build, in good physical condition and used to walking for long distances, Equipped with good walking footwear and other hiking equipment appropriate to the era.
  • Roads and trails are in good condition and up kept by whatever local authority deals with them.
  • Weather is good to fair, and travellers are walking for around 7-8 hours a day.


Reduce these distances by around a quarter for a heavily laden man.

Add a quarter to half again for very experienced hikers.

As with mounted travel, exceptionally experienced and/or physically capable men might be able to do significantly more as a one off forced march, but twice the base is probably a reasonable maximum and I would expect them to take be walking for up to 20 hours and be utterly exhausted at the end of it!

Out of interest

Naismith’s rule is a ‘rule of thumb’ for planning a hiking expedition by calculating how long it will take to walk the route, including ascents. The basic rule is:

“Allow 1 hour for every 3 miles forward, plus 1 hour for every 2000 feet of ascent”.

I’ve read anything from 15 to 25 miles per day quoted in many places for a fully laden Roman Legionary, but 15 miles seems more common though with time to break camp and rebuild it after the days march factored in most sources reckon they were only marching for a round 5 hours a day anyway. (There are some sources that suggestion 50 mile forced marches were possible for the Legions but many dismiss this as an exaggeration)

And just to show how subjective and ‘as a guide only’ this sort of table is:

The world record for the marathon distance of just over 26 miles is a mere 2 hours and 8 minutes!

Ulysse Grant thought a forced march of 20 miles in a day was generally not a good idea if troops were expected to fight at the end of it

The British SAS selection ‘Test week’ concludes with ‘Endurance’, a 40 mile march across the Brecon Beacons (very hilly / mountainous terrain, famed for its bad weather) – completed in less than 20 hours whilst loaded in excess of fifty five pounds of equipment, plus water, food and rifle.

More Info: by rdanhenry

Over long distances, there are very few animals that the human (in proper condition) cannot outpace. Horses, however, are no slouches themselves at long distances. I would say you probably get about the same rates on foot or by horse, assuming conditions do not hinder the horse unduly (you’ll never get a horse up Everest and a man can fit through more closely grown trees). The great advantage of mounted travel is that somebody else is doing the work. You also generally use a beast of burden, which can handle more weight than a man.

Dean Karnazes “Ran 3,000 miles (4,800 km) across the United States from Disneyland to New York City in 75 days, running 40 to 50 miles per day, 2011” per Wikipedia. (

Armies will travel much slower, due to the amount of equipment required, including considerations of food for such large groups. Armies generally include wagons, which will always be slower than simply and horse and rider. Smaller bands of travelers who are less burdened will go faster. Maximum rates require that one be essentially unburdened; running over 100 miles in a day is simply not done with a backpack.

I’d say 20-40 miles per day on a good road and no hampering conditions is about what you can expect with a normal group either on foot or mounted. Conditions will often make travel slower. Don’t forget that weather will have an effect; travel can be slowed considerably if the skies are unfriendly. The need to obtain food is more of a problem with horses, if there is no ready grazing. How elaborate the encampment preparations are will also have an affect on travel rate, as will daylight hours, as both influence hours spent in travel. An army that fortifies its encampment will be more secure, but travel slower, than one that simply throws down its bedrolls, sets a watch, and sleeps.

And as fifty’s post points out, there is a difference between how far you will travel in a day if you simply need to get where you are going and how fast you go if you need to reserve enough strength to do battle or otherwise exert yourself when done with the journey. Peaceful pilgrims in a peaceful land will outpace an army or a group of “adventurers” exploring wilderness. There are many factors, which is why historical numbers vary so much.

by Midgardsormr

I don’t recall where I read it, but I remember learning that the effective control radius for a Medieval castle is about 20 miles: the distance that a mounted force can travel in a single day and still be able to fight when they arrive.

Somewhere around here is a very nice analysis of settlement density in an English county, originally posted by Gidde I believe, that included some numbers of travel distance and time. If I recall correctly, the average distance between settlements was roughly half a day’s walk, such that a person could go to the next town, make some trades, and be back home before dark.


Medieval Monday: Blacksmiths

Blacksmiths played a vital role in medieval society. Everyone, from the lowest peasant, to the King required their services. Every village had at least one blacksmith, with larger towns and cities supporting many more of them.

We often have a certain image in mind when it comes to the medieval blacksmith; we see them crafting swords, daggers, armor, and shields. And certainly there were some blacksmiths—particularly those that worked in castles—who specialized in producing the tools of war. Castle blacksmiths were envied for the position of prestige they held, and their positions were usually hereditary. But whether they were working in a castle, or a rural village, a blacksmith’s work was dirty, loud, hot, and physically demanding with little glamor in the daily routine.

Aside from weapons and armor, just about every chore and trade required some kind of metalwork. Mundane items like nails, doorknobs horseshoes, chains, kitchen tools, utensils for cooking in fireplaces, cauldrons, farming implements, locks, keys, arrow tips, axes, and much more were all made by blacksmiths. Once made, many items also needed constant repair, making a blacksmith’s job a very busy one. Some blacksmiths might even make jewelry, or somewhat more frightening, torture devices. Blacksmiths with special skill could make intricate and impressive wrought iron pieces for structures like cathedrals and castles, and metalwork intended for defense. With the wide variety of items made, and the different skills required for each, it is no surprise that their work was eventually split up into different specialties. Not every blacksmith did the same kind of work, and some branched out into work with precious metals. By the 14th century, clocks were even added to the blacksmith’s repertoire.

There were unusual beliefs and superstitions surrounding blacksmiths. They were thought by some to have healing powers, particularly over injuries like broken bones. However, they were also sometimes associated with the devil. While they were too important to be persecuted due to this belief, blacksmiths were often the object of colorful legends.

Enjoy this video showing a blacksmith at work to learn a little more about the craft and how to make a medieval axe.

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


Medieval Monday: Smelting Iron Ore / Bloomeries

I am re-posting this from over a year ago with the intent of making my next post about blacksmiths and their work. It is a subject I haven’t tackled yet even though blacksmiths played an important role in medieval society.

My second book, Ancient Voices, is set in a small mountain village called Minhaven—a place full of miners and blacksmiths.  Naturally I had to do some research, to figure out what mining techniques were used back then, and how iron ore dug from the ground was transformed into something that could be used to make things like tools, knives, and swords.

hotslagOne process I had particular trouble envisioning was the smelting process. The simplest and most common furnaces used in the Middle Ages were called bloomeries, and they were typically built out of stone or clay.  Iron ore was placed in through the top, along with a lot of charcoal for fuel, and kept burning for hours.  Very high temperatures had to be maintained for the process to work.  Air could be fed into the bloomery with a hand bellows.  Sometimes limestone or oyster shells were added into the mix as well, so that they would combine with the impurities in the ore.  The end result would be a brittle slag that could be separated from the iron, which could then be hammered into submission by a blacksmith.

I found a couple of great videos that show how the smelting process works.  The first is replicating Edwardian era techniques, which were relatively unchanged from the Middle Ages.  It gives a great demonstration in only about 5 minutes.

For those of you wanting more, this video is more authentic medieval, and shows the entire process, but is considerably longer (about 22 minutes).  Definitely worth the time if you are interested in the topic.  Both videos are very well done. Enjoy!

Medieval Monday: Dirty Laundry

Those dirty clothes really pile up, don’t they? Especially when you have kids. As much as I grumble about having to wash and fold, I’m not really doing the work—the washing machine is taking care of the hard part for me. 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.”

Laundry was unquestionably women’s work. Some cities had communal wash houses, where women could come to share news and gossip while they worked. Soapwort, an herb with cleansing properties, was sometimes used to get fabric clean. It was also beaten with “beetles”, rinsed, and wrung. Marjoram could be used to give washing water a pleasant scent. Clothing could also be washed in natural bodies of water (rivers, streams, ponds), and beaten against rocks.

If one needed to remove stains, this could be done with the use of Fuller’s Earth or ashes soaked in lye. The mixture would be applied to the stain, allowed to try, then rubbed off. For more delicate materials, such as silk, verjuice was another remedy. Removing stains such as oil or grease was a more complex process. One recipe is as follows: “To remove grease or oil stains, take urine and heat until warm. Soak the stain for two days. Without twisting the fabric, squeeze the afflicted area, then rinse. As an alternative for stubborn greasy or oily stains, soak in urine with ox gall beaten into it, for two days and squeeze without twisting before rinsing.” White cloth could be cleaned and brightened by soaking it in lye, which was mixed using ashes and urine.

Undergarments were washed fairly often, even if they were only rinsed out at home in warm water, but woolen outer garments were rarely washed. They would have simply been shaken or beaten with a brush or a bundle of twigs to get rid of dust and dirt. Robes and cloaks might be rubbed with wax to weatherproof them, but this process would have been too expensive for peasants who would have worn felted wool instead.

Washed clothing was dried outdoors; laid across bushes, flat on grass, or draped across wooden frames or ropes. These of these could be moved indoors during poor weather if there was enough space.

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