Medieval Monday: The Damsel

It has been a while since I made a Medieval Monday post, but I’ll get back to it now that my book is finished. I’ll resume with this BBC episode of Medieval Lives, which is all about women’s roles in medieval society. A very interesting take which somewhat debunks current views of how women were expected to behave and were treated during the Middle Ages.

WARNING: This is probably NSFW, as it does deal in part with how women’s sexuality was viewed from medieval times through the Victorian era. There is some “nudity” as taken from medieval artwork, so maybe not something you want to watch with kids hanging over your shoulder, either. I considered not posting this one at all, but the purpose of my Medieval Monday series is to show what daily medieval life was really like, and this was a significant part of life, particularly in a society where having children was critical to survival and marriage was often more about politics/social maneuvering than love.


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

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Medieval Monday: The Monk

 

It’s the beginning of the month, so here’s another episode of Medieval Lives with Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. Lots of interesting information about the role of monks in medieval society, some of the different orders and how they got started. Lots of beautiful architecture in this one! Definitely worth watching.


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

Medieval Monday: Easter!

Easter was the most important holiday in the medieval world, with many medieval calendars beginning the “new year” with Easter. The holiday included both serious reflection and joyous celebration. Lent was taken quite seriously—forty days of fasting was strictly observed, and the preparations made in anticipation of Easter were extensive. The days before Easter were largely spent in church, starting with the previous Wednesday when services called the Tenebrae began.

On Maundy Thursday (celebration of the Last Supper) the service was solemn and very quiet, with the altars stripped bare of all their decoration. Instead they were covered with branches. This was symbolic of the treatment Jesus received when he was stripped, beaten, and forced to wear a crown of thorns on his way to the cross.

On Good Friday, the medieval world mourned Christ’s death, and a common practice was to begin the day by “creeping to the Cross” barefoot and on one’s hands and knees. Church services were held in almost complete darkness, with just one candleholder (a Hearse) that was gradually extinguished to symbolize the earth falling into darkness. Only the central candle, which represented the light of Christ, remained lit. The priest would read the story of the Passion from the Gospel of John and lift up prayers for God’s mercy and the cleansing of their sins. It would have been a powerful ceremony. No one used tools or nails made of iron on Good Friday. Holy Saturday would have been another day of somber reflection as the world remained in darkness with Jesus lying in the tomb.

But on Easter morning, everything changed—Jesus had risen from the grave, and it was time for a celebration! Church began at sunrise, with everyone gathered outside of the church to sing hymns before going in for services. The darkness from before was replaced with light and the somber mood replaced by joy. Some monasteries put on plays to re-enact the day’s significance. The monks would wear white robes to represent the women who first discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty, and that he was indeed risen. The forty day fast was finally over, and once all of the church-related activities had ended, it was it was finally time for feasting. Feasts were usually put on by royalty, lords, and wealthy nobles. Symbolically, putting on a great feast for the community was reminiscent of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. With no expense spared, it was an act of charity toward those who had much less, and whose winter reserves were nearing depletion (if not already depleted).

Certain fun traditions were observed as well, such as wearing or receiving new clothes and enjoying colorful Easter eggs. Eggs were boiled in salt water to preserve them during Lent, when eating them was forbidden.  They made their re-appearance on Easter, sometimes painted or dyed for the occasion—usually red to symbolize the blood of Christ.  In Germanic regions they were painted green and hung on trees. Children made games of rolling them downhill, or they were hidden (and found) to represent the disciples finding Jesus’ empty tomb.  Egg coloring could be as simple as boiling them with onions to give them a golden color, or they could actually be decorated with gold leaf, as Edward I did with his Easter eggs in 1290.

The celebration did not end on Easter Sunday, however. Hock Monday followed, during which young women “captured” young men and would only release them if paid a ransom (really a donation to the church). On Hock Tuesday, the roles were reversed and the young women were captured. As you can imagine, these antics did not always end well, and eventually attempts were made to better control them—sometimes even forbid them outright.


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

Medieval Monday: Pigeons and Dovecotes

Doves and pigeons were an important resource in the Middle Ages,  valued primarily for their meat, eggs, and feathers. Falconries used them as quarry, and their guano was a highly sought-after fertilizer. In southern Europe, it was spread on hemp fields and vineyards. In Northern Europe, it was said that pigeon guano was worth ten loads of any other type of fertilizer.

Until the 1600s, strict laws forbid anyone other than the nobility or monasteries from keeping doves and pigeons. Though some castles and manors had built-in nesting boxes, for the most part these birds were housed in freestanding structures called dovecotes. They were round, stone buildings with either a domed or conical-shaped roof. The round shape made it easier for people to collect young doves or pigeons (squabs) from the nesting boxes. Squabs were considered a delicacy.

The inside of the building had a large open space, with ledges or cubicles jutting out from the walls. Pigeons would enter and exit from openings just beneath the roof. The nests could be accessed with a ladder attached to a revolving pole called a potence.

There is some evidence that pigeons were also used for communication, but only after exposure to Middle Eastern practices during the crusades. For the most part Western Europeans had no concept of how birds migrated. (They thought that Swallows hibernated during the winter in the mud beneath ponds.) The use of homing pigeons to communicate over long distances didn’t become common throughout all of Europe until after the medieval era. However, those regions that continued to trade and communicate with the Arab world during and after the crusades began to build networks of homing pigeons. The Republic of Genoa was the most notable of these, and built towers for that purpose along the Mediterranean Sea.

Pigeons were able to deliver messages relatively reliably and quickly over hundreds of miles from their home. By feeding them in one location, and nesting them in another, they could be trained to fly back and forth between two locations. But more often, once they were released and delivered their messages, pigeons had to be transported back and forth by cart. This method of communication was not without its limitations, however. Any message sent by pigeon had to be very short, and the receiver on the other end would have to be literate enough to read it. Such messages could also be intercepted by trained falcons and hawks, or by archers.


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

Medieval Monday: The Peasant (part 2)

In my last post I talked about peasants in medieval society. This week I am expanding on that, as their roles went far beyond the basic categories of serfs, villeins, and freemen.

While many peasants provided manual labor in the crop fields, not all of them were farmers. Peasants were craftspeople as well, whether working in a castle or manor directly for the nobility, or serving villages and towns. Peasant trades would have included millers, carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, shoemakers, cobblers, chandlers (candle makers), coopers (barrel makers), tanners, tinkers, potters, weavers, bakers, fletchers (arrow-makers), book-binders, masons, and many others. Some of these trades were tightly regulated by powerful guilds, particularly in the later Middle Ages.

Work, family, and home were integrated together. Peasants working a craft usually lived and worked in the same building. If they had a shop, it would occupy the first floor where the front of the building might be able to open into a vendor stall. The second floor would be living space for the family. Parents typically taught their children the trades they worked; father to son, mother to daughter. If a child did not learn a parent’s trade, they could be apprenticed to someone else to learn a different one.

We tend to think that women’s responsibilities were purely domestic, such as tending the home, children, animals, garden, and sometimes helping in the fields during the height of the harvest. However, there were also certain crafts that were commonly done by women, such as baking, brewing, midwifery, and every aspect of textile manufacture. Women were also known to help their husbands with their crafts, including but not limited to leather and metal working, or helping to run mills, taverns, and inns. Positions in convents were typically reserved for noblewomen, but some peasant women were able to enter as “lay sisters.” They would be given the most menial jobs that needed to be taken care of.

Some peasants actually held prominent, even powerful roles that brought them wealth.

A bailiff was hired to help run a lord’s estate. His job would be to delegate jobs to other peasants and hire the appropriate tradesmen as needed for different projects. He was also responsible for taking care of livestock and building maintenance.

A reeve was an assistant to a bailiff; an enforcer who was usually strong and intimidating. His job was to act as a go-between. He made sure that the peasant workers were doing their jobs and not stealing from the lord.

Stewards (or seneschals) were also extremely important, and well paid for their work. They were in charge of managing a lord’s affairs when he was away—taking care of both his property and his finances. A steward by necessity was someone that the lord could trust.


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

Medieval Monday: The Peasant

Now that I’ve gone through all the labors of the months, my first-of-the-month posts will shift focus to something new–social status and occupations. We’ll start with peasants, who were at the bottom of the social scale. They had limited to no voices in feudal society, might not be allowed to own property, and led rather difficult lives.

While we tend to lump “peasants” all into the same category, there were really 3 basic types of peasants, with important differences that distinguish them from one another.

Serfs were just a step above slaves, bound to the land on which they provided manual labor for a lord. In addition to working in the fields, they might also do things like work in the mines, forests, or maintain roads. Serfs were not permitted to leave the lord’s land (or purchase their own) and might be sold with it like property. Marriages between serfs had to be approved by the lord.

Villeins were similar to serfs in status, but they were semi-free tenants. They paid for the use of the lord’s land with either dues or services. While villeins were not personally sold with the land, their labors might be, and they would be required to work for whomever held it. Both villeins and serfs were usually poor, and worked extremely hard for what little they had. Unrest among serfs and villeins was common, though it rarely resulted in any substantial societal change.

Freemen were peasants who were free to go where they wanted and do what they pleased (within their limited means, of course). They were not required to work on the lord’s land, though they might choose to. Most of them were simply laborers, but a few were fortunate enough to own their own land or business. Some freemen could be rather well off and comfortable–for peasants, at least.

Despite their poor status, all peasants had to pay taxes, both to the lord to whom they swore their fealty, and to the Church. The Church required a 10% tithe, either in cash, or in crops. Peasants dreaded this tax, as it could leave them with not enough of what they’d grown to survive through the year.

Check out this informative, and humorous, video from the BBC on medieval peasants. It is hosted by Terry Jones from Monty Python. It is quite interesting and entertaining as well.

 


Read Peasants (part 2). Learn more about the daily life in Middle Ages by browsing previous posts in the Medieval Monday Index.

Medieval Monday: Sleep (part 2)

 

 

Medieval Monday: Sleep (part 1) talked about how sleep cycles in the Middle Ages differed from those of the present day. This post goes into other information related to sleep.

What you wore, where you slept, and what you slept on were all related to your social status. The average person in the Middle Ages didn’t have a separate sleeping area. In a one room cottage, everyone slept crammed in together on thin woven mats, or mattresses stuffed with wool, hay or moss. Fleas, lice, and other pests were frequent, unwelcome guests that plagued commoners and kings alike. They were sometimes combated with ticking (tightly woven mattress covers), herbs that were known to be insect-repellents, or by storing bedding in cedar chests. While the wealthy had the advantage of feather beds and pillows, and fur coverlets, pest were attracted to them. Bed filling was usually only changed once each year.

A fireplace was the only source of heat and would have to be tended in the middle of the night to keep it going. In a peasant home, the fireplace was little more than an open hearth in the center of the room (sometimes with a hole in the ceiling above it for ventilation). Once the shutters and doors were all closed for the night, the room would be quite smoky. Heavy rains might drip through the thatch roof overhead, or drive insects and mice indoors, and wind whistled noisily through the walls and windows. A somewhat larger peasant home might have two rooms—one for the people, another for the animals—or a sleeping loft above.

If you had a bit more wealth, your sleeping arrangements would be more comfortable, but surprisingly not any more private. A real bed, with a mattress and drawn curtains was quite expensive and might be passed down through the family. Though the likelihood of having a separate sleeping room was greater, the whole family would sleep together in one bed, with servants sleeping nearby on straw mats. Guests of the household might also be invited to share the bed.

Other types of beds could be quite small, designed for only one person. They might have a sloped back and knee support, more like sleeping in a reclining chair than a bed. It was always advantageous to have space between the floor and the bed so that cold didn’t seep up from the floor. Women tended to braid or tie up their hair at bedtime, and it was common for everyone to sleep with a head covering for added warmth. If it was particularly cold, hot stones or a bed warmer (filled with hot coals from the fire) might be placed beneath the blankets until the bed was warm, or the blankets might simply be turned all the way down to allow in heat from the hearth.

It is generally thought that most medieval people slept without clothes, but period artwork shows a variety of nightly attire. Some slept nude while others wore simple gowns and shirts, or even just their daily underclothes. Monks were known to sleep in their robes for warmth since they always slept alone. By the late Middle Ages nightshirts and nightgowns were common. What was worn depended on one’s means, personal preferences, time of year, and sleeping conditions, and who else was sharing the bed.

One thing both wealthy and poor had in common–neither much enjoyed going outside to the bathroom in the middle of the night, so chamber pots were used. Urine collected in these pots had a variety of uses, from cleaning, to sterilizing wounds and tools, to processes like fulling wool. Over the chamber pot there might be a chair with a hole in the seat and a cover to help contain the smell.

Want to learn more about what daily life was like in the Middle Ages? You can find all of my previous posts in the Medieval Monday Index.