Medieval Monday: Labors of January

winter-snowball-fightWinter had tightened its grip, and the most important labor of January was staying warm! With only hearth fires for heat, the cold was a very real danger for everyone, but especially the young, the elderly, and the poor. There were still several feasting days to be celebrated, which continued to be a blessing for those who needed help getting through winter. January 6th, the day after Epiphany, was the Feast of the Three Kings. Christian tradition was often blended with agricultural ceremonies rooted in pagan tradition, even though the Church frowned on these practices. The plow and distaff, symbols of male and female societal roles, were both honored. There might be plow races, or processions though villages. The plows might also be pulled around a bonfire to bring good luck for the new year. Actual plowing could not begin until after Candlemas (February 2nd) which was the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. At that point, the winter respite from the fields was officially over, and they were tilled in preparation for spring planting.

harvestingclayThere were other things to do during the month of January. On the coldest days, medieval people completed any type of work that could be done indoors. Spinning thread, weaving, repairing hunting and fishing nets, making utensils, and repairing or sharpening tools were among them. With spring not so far into the future, all the necessary farming equipment would need to be in working order. On milder days, people could do some outdoor work, such as gathering firewood, mending fences, pruning vines, or using a hoe to harvest clay from riverbanks.


 

Enjoy one last “Tales from the Green Valley” episode. We’ve now followed this team of experts through an entire year on a medieval farm, and the information given has been amazing. Lots of really fascinating details in this one, including tending cattle, harvesting timber supplies, repairing tools, building work, hedge laying, breaking ice, mucking the cow shed, harvesting oak apples (for dye or ink), making ink, repairing shoes, preparing and using medicines, distilling water, preparing the field for spring, harvesting kale, winter foods and recipes.

Though I won’t be posting these at the start of each month anymore, you can still watch the videos anytime,  or read my labors of the months posts, by using the Medieval Monday Index.

Mystery, Magic, and Faith

Are you signed up yet to get my bi-monthly newsletter? It features insights into my writing, author updates, giveaways, lots of FREE book promotions and more. When you subscribe, you also get the second book in the Wind Rider Chronicles free. Below I’ve shared a section from my first January newsletter–check it out! Click to see the entire newsletter and browse this month’s free and discounted books.

In Journey to Aviad, Elowyn carries a little satchel with her initial on it that Morganne had made for her—it’s full of herbs meant to ward off evil. This was a common thing to do in the Middle Ages, as certain plants were thought to fend off everything from demons and witches, to just plain bad luck. Medieval people lived in a world full of danger and mystery, which was very often explained with superstitions.

The pervasive thought was that there were two kinds of magic. Black magic was demonic, and therefore harmful. Magic of this sort was feared and avoided, and was used to explain accidents, unknown illnesses, and other tragedies. White magic was supposedly based on the power of nature (God’s Creation). Using charms, talismans, and spells, performing sunrise rituals while sowing crops, or reciting incantations while weaving fabric, are just a few examples of white magic. The study of astrology and alchemy fell into this category as well.

The Church disapproved of them all, but pre-Christian paganism was still very much embedded in Medieval culture and had intertwined itself with Christianity. Folk-beliefs, like the belief in fairies for example, was everyday common sense in places like the British Isles—and had been for hundreds of years. Local priests could not convince people otherwise and eventually gave up trying, despite sharp pressure from the Catholic Church.

It’s easy to see how the medieval period lends itself so well to fantasy literature, which often relies on various forms of magic to add intrigue and to move the story. I have included some of these elements in my series for the sake of flavor and authenticity, like Elowyn’s little bag of herbs and the superstitions held by the people of Minhaven. But since I am writing Christian fiction, I have been very careful about the way I handle magic so that there is a true distinction between what is demonic, what is divine, and what is merely misguided belief. Hopefully my readers noticed that when Elowyn gave away her little bag of herbs, she did not seek to replace it with another. It was a small milestone on her journey to spiritual maturity, as she replaced her belief in the empty “magic” it contained, with a much stronger faith in Aviad and His ability to protect her.

_________________________________________________

Elowyn was convinced that by removing the coin so soon after the man’s brutal death, she had somehow interfered with his ascension into the afterlife, causing his spirit to appear before her in the night. How else could she explain it? He had sought her out from beyond the dead, and pointed directly at the pouch that held the coin. It was quite obviously an object not meant for her to keep, and it had to be returned at the proper time of day.

Elowyn knew very little about the workings of magic, but it was common knowledge that the rites of good magic were most effective at sunrise. That was usually when cures were tried, when newly planted crops were blessed, and when pilgrims to the shrines petitioned their most desperate prayers. Nearly any ritual of importance, even the harvesting of garden herbs, was best performed at sunrise. If she did not make it before then, she would have to wait another day, and perhaps risk another terrifying vision in the night.

~ from Chapter 2, Journey to Aviad

Medieval Monday: The Labors of December

winter-scene-2In the cold days of December, the fields were finally quiet, with the ground too frozen to work. Animals were taken care of, to ensure they would not only survive the harsh months to come, but that they would be healthy on spring’s arrival. After all, they would be needed to work. In bad weather, animals would need to be brought indoors and fed straw mixed with other nutrients such as corn stubble, or pea pods.  Other outdoor work consisted of mostly repair and reconstruction. Timber was cut, and fences and walls mended. If autumn rains had eroded the banks of the mill pond, they would need to be fixed as well.

cooking2

 

Most work had to be done indoors. Carving wood became a common winter activity–people made useful items like bowls, spoons, and cups. They repaired farming tools and household equipment. Baskets, nets, and harnesses were woven out of rushes or reeds. Women spent a good amount of time spinning thread, weaving, and sewing–making new garments and mending torn ones.

Women would also be carefully managing supplies of food; doing their best to feed hungry families even though the fresh foods gathered or harvested in autumn were now beginning to run out. Most peasant families were surviving on bread and pottage. The kettle was kept going over the fire day after day, the culinary monotony broken up by subtle changes to what was thrown into the pot. Common ingredients would have been beans, leeks, lentils, peas, onions, and herbs like parsley. Meat stock might be used for added nutrition, and possibly salted meat or dried fish on occasion. Eggs, cheese, and butter rounded out the winter diet on days when fasting wasn’t required.


Below I have two videos to share. One is very short and shows how bowls were carved using traditional medieval tools. He makes this look so easy, but I’m sure it takes a lot of practice to learn this skill. The other is December’s Tales from the Green Valley in which the team covers the topics of making preparations for Christmas, building a wood storage hovel, sewing, clothing, threshing peas, making mince pies and other Christmas foods, and decorating for Christmas. Some of the Christmas traditions (like the Yule log) are from a bit beyond the medieval period, but many of the other things they describe would have been the same. Enjoy!

 

Medieval Monday: Executioner

What Was It Like to Be an Executioner in the Middle Ages?

by: Emma Bryce

Forget the image of the hooded executioner swinging an ax; much of what we think we know about these medieval figures isn’t true.

8xCuScaVhawKbLfWGRPeAP-1024-80

One afternoon in May 1573, a 19-year-old man named Frantz Schmidt stood in the backyard of his father’s house in the German state of Bavaria, preparing to behead a stray dog with a sword. He’d recently graduated from “decapitating” inanimate pumpkins to practicing on live animals. If he passed this final stage, Schmidt would be considered ready to start his job, as an executioner of people.

We know the details of this morbid scene because Schmidt meticulously chronicled his life as an executioner, writing a series of diaries that painted a rich picture of this profession during the sixteenth century. His words provided a rare glimpse of the humanity behind the violence, revealing a man who took his work seriously and often felt empathy for his victims. But what’s more, Schmidt wasn’t necessarily all that unusual; historical anecdotes reveal that the prevailing stereotype of the hooded, blood-spattered, brutish executioner falls far short of the truth.

So then, what was it like to do this work hundreds of years ago in Europe? And how did “executioner” become a legitimate job title in the first place?

Continue reading…


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

Medieval Monday: Trade

Trade in Medieval Europe by Mark Cartwright

Trade and commerce in the medieval world developed to such an extent that even relatively small communities had access to weekly markets and, perhaps a day’s travel away, larger but less frequent fairs, where the full range of consumer goods of the period was set out to tempt the shopper and small retailer. Markets and fairs were organised by large estate owners, town councils, and some churches and monasteries, who, granted a license to do so by their sovereign, hoped to gain revenue from stall holder fees and boost the local economy as shoppers used peripheral services.

International trade had been present since Roman times but improvements in transportation and banking, as well as the economic development of northern Europe, caused a boom from the 9th century CE. English wool, for example, was sent in huge quantities to manufacturers in Flanders; the Venetians, thanks to the Crusades, expanded their trade interests to the Byzantine Empire and the Levant, and new financial instruments evolved which allowed even small investors to fund the trade expeditions which criss-crossed Europe by sea and land.

Markets & Shops

In villages, towns, and large cities which had been granted the privilege of a license to do so by their monarch, markets were regularly held in public squares (or sometimes triangles), in wide streets or even in purpose-built halls. Markets were also organised just outside many castles and monasteries. Typically held once or twice a week, larger towns might have a daily market which moved around different parts of the city depending on the day or have markets for specific goods like meat, fish, or bread. Sellers of particular goods, who paid an estate owner, the town, or borough council a fee for the privilege to have a stall, were typically set next to each other in areas so that competition was kept high. Sellers of meat and bread tended to be men, but women stallholders were often the majority, and they sold such staples as eggs, dairy products, poultry, and ale. There were middlemen and women known as regrators who bought goods from producers and sold them on to the market stallholders or producers might pay a vendor to sell their goods for them. Besides markets, sellers of wares also went knocking on the doors of private homes, and these were known as hucksters.

Keep reading at Ancient History Encyclopedia…


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

 

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.

Keep reading at ThoughtCo…


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

 

Medieval Monday: Crazy Creatures–Real or Imagined?

Last week’s shared post about knights and giant snails, written by Nicholas Rossis, inspired me to make a post that features some of the other mythical beasts, strange animals, and human-creature hybrids found in medieval texts. They’re are a lot of fun, and good inspiration for fantasy writers. These bizarre creatures defy all reason; part man, part beast, men without heads, or with the heads of dogs. At times, the grotesque physical deformities can be rather alarming. Those listed below are only a small number of the many crazy creatures born from the medieval imagination.

With a couple of exceptions, there are more images than writings about these fantastical abominations. Were they visual metaphors to express common beliefs and fears of the day? Or were they thought to be real, lurking in the remote or exotic places of the world? Maybe a little of both.


The alerion is lord over all other birds. Bigger than an eagle, it has razor-sharp, fire-colored wings. However, this bird is also exceedingly rare. There is only one pair in the world at a time.

The female of the pair lays two eggs when she is sixty years old, which take sixty days to hatch. Once the young emerge, the adult pair are escorted by a host of other birds to the sea, where they plunge into the waters and drown. The accompanying birds then return to the nest to care of the alerions’ young until they can fly on their own.


The parandrus (or tarandos) was a beast the size of an ox, with long, dark hair, and the antlers of a stag. It was able to hide itself by changing its appearance to blend in with its surroundings.

It is unclear if this creature was supposed to pose any threat, or if its exotic nature and abilities were merely a curiosity.


The cerastes is even more flexible than an ordinary serpent, and has horns protruding from the top of its head. There might be two, like those of a ram, or four small horns.

A cerastes will hide itself under the sand, with only the ends of its horns sticking up as a lure. When other animals come close thinking they’ve found food, the serpent quickly kills and eats them.

Now imagine the possible fantasy adaptations for such a creature. Animals are lured by food…what might lure larger prey, including human beings? Perhaps water in a desert environment…or glittering treasure. Maybe such a serpent would see us as an easy meal. Or with some intelligence it might have a more sinister motive. What do you think?


A muscaliet is certainly a strange creature from medieval lore. This small animal has the body of a hare, the tail and legs of a squirrel, teeth like a boar, the muzzle of a mole, and ears like a weasel. It uses the strength of its tail to jump from branch to branch, and its paws for climbing and digging under tree roots.

The muscaliet was supposed to have an extremely high body temperature, burning anything it touches. It devastates the leaves and fruit of trees, burrowing beneath the roots, building its nest there, and causing the tree to dry up and die.


Ever heard of an aspidochelone? This sea-monster is similar to a whale, but it has spines along the ridge of its back, a turtle-shell, and a head like a snake.

The creature masks itself as an island, sometimes even appearing to have rocks, trees, and sandy beaches. It lures sailors to land on its back, then it pulls all the sailors and their ship down into the depths of the ocean where it devours them.

In medieval lore, the aspidochelone was symbolic of Satan, who deceives sinners, and drags them down into hell.


No doubt you’ve heard of centaurs, which are generally good and noble creatures. But what about the onocentaur?

This beast has the upper body of a man, and the lower body of a donkey. The human half is rational, but the donkey half is wild and without control. The onocentaur is symbolic of lust and the hypocrisy of those who speak of doing good, but who do evil instead.

The onocentaur is often depicted carrying a club or bow for a weapon, and is sometimes seen working together with the siren, luring men to their doom.

 


A caladrius is a white bird, typically associated with royalty. Its excrement placed directly onto the eyes was said to cure blindness.

But this was not the bird’s only value. It was also believed that if a caladrius was brought into the room with a sick person, and turned its face away, that person was going to die. However, if the caladrius gazed into the face of the sick person, he or she would recover. When the bird eventually flew away, the illness would be taken with it.


The skoffin is the offspring of an arctic fox and a female tabby cat, and is the Icelandic version of a basilisk. It was a truly evil being that said horribly wicked things, and killed with just a look.

A skoffin could only be killed by seeing another of its kind. (In some stories it was tricked into seeing its own reflection.) Later lore claimed that it could also be killed by the sign of the cross or with a silver bullet.

Incidentally, the skoffin not pictured anywhere in medieval manuscripts… Maybe no one ever saw one and lived to tell about it…


Here’s another strange one…a gryllus. This funny looking medieval “monster” has a head and legs, but no arms or body.

Its origin is likely in the Odyssey of Greek Mythology, but it frequently graced medieval religious imagery. The gryllus became a symbol of base bodily vices and human folly.

 


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