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!

 

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Keeping the Goliardic Spark Alive #amwriting #NaNoWriMo by Connie J. Jasperson

Medieval Monday will be back next week! Like Connie, I am also making a last push for my NaNoWriMo word count, so today I’m sharing a post instead of writing one. (Thanks to Chris the Story Reading Ape.)


This week has been a struggle, what with cooking a Thanksgiving feast for my extended family and trying to keep my wordcount output up for #NaNoWriMo, so today I am reprising an essay written in 2015, on irreverent humor, the Carmina Burana, and medieval frat boys. Enjoy!

Crazy humor at the expense of the establishment is nothing new. It’s part of the Human Condition. And to that end, I love goliardic poetry.

Carl Orff and his amazing cantata, Carmina Burana, catapulted me into the poetry of the Goliards. But who and what were the goliards?

During what we call the Middle Ages, noble and wealthy middle-class families had a tradition that the eldest son inherited everything, the second son went into the church, and the younger sons went to the crusades.

The old-fashioned practice of “primogeniture” or bestowing the rights of inheritance upon the eldest son, often leaving younger sons penniless, is responsible for some of the most ribald and hilarious poetry of the middle ages…

Keep reading at the source: Keeping the Goliardic Spark Alive #amwriting #NaNoWriMo

Medieval Monday: Boots, Shoes, and Walking Medieval

Early in the period, footwear was still influenced by the Romans and nomadic European tribes that came before. They were largely stiff, poor quality, stitched leather wraps with laces to hold them to the ankle—not much better than walking barefoot. In colder regions these might have been lined with fur for warmth. As the Middle Ages progressed, and trade increased, higher quality leather became available, and the crusades exposed Europe to Byzantine styles. Shoe and boot makers might be called cordwainers (12th century on) or chaucers, and as was the case with most other medieval trades, they were regulated by guilds. Cobblers, however, did not make brand new footwear. They were only permitted to repair shoes that had been made by someone else.

The types of shoes worn would be different depending on your trade, where you lived, and your social status. They might be made of leather, wool, fur, or wood. Peasants often wore poor quality knee-high boots that laced up the front. English peasants also wore a heavy shoe made of undressed leather with the hair on the outside. They were called revelins or slops. The nobility wore a high quality close-toed slipper, the design of which changed with the fashions of the day. Early on, they remained relatively plain, but in the high and late Middle Ages they may have been elongated, pointed, and/or decorated with elaborate designs. Leather shoes could be stamped, tooled, or decorated with cutouts. Shoes were not always necessary, however. As hose became fashionable for men, soles were often sewn directly into the hose.

Turnshoes were the most popular type of medieval shoe, particularly in the northern regions. These ankle-high shoes had a triangular flap that folded over the ankle and stayed attached with a latchet or thongs.  They were very plain, with no embellishments and flat soles. These types of shoes were made inside out, then soaked in a bucket of water until they were soft enough to turn them the right way. This would have been done very carefully to prevent over-stretching the leather or tearing it. Once completely dry, the shoe would be stiff again. It might have a sole added at this stage, but it could also be worn without one.

In the 14th century, clogs or pattens also became common. They were an overshoe that offered protection from wet and muddy streets. The bottoms were made of wood or cork, with a leather strap to hold them to the foot. Some had a hinged heel to make walking easier. Techniques that allowed a heavier sole to be attached to a regular shoe were not developed until the 15th century. Stacked heels did not come about until after the Renaissance period.

While some shoes were tailored specifically to the wearer’s feet, ready-made shoes in several different sizes were also available as the trade began to boom. There was little to no distinction between a right and left shoe such as there is today. Shoes might have been padded for comfort, or to correct the fit as the material stretched with wear.  Padding would have been made from materials like wool, fur, hair, or moss.

One of the most interesting aspects of this topic is that medieval shoes required a different style of walking than we are accustomed to today. To comfortably wear a medieval style shoe, one would need to point their feet forward, rather than at an angle, take a shorter stride, and land on the front of the foot rather than the heel. Roland Warzecha, who teaches historical European combat fighting, made a video explaining the body mechanics of how medieval people walked. It is less than 7 minutes long, but very informative!

 


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

 

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.


 

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!