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.

Medieval Monday: Sleep (part 1)

There is no doubt that the seasons ruled medieval life, dictating what work needed to be done and what food was available to eat, but did you know they affected sleep habits as well? With our ability to brighten up stores, homes, and streets with electric lights, our modern-day sleep patterns don’t change a whole lot with the seasons. Most of us aim for a solid 8 hours and adjust our bed times and alarm clocks accordingly.

But imagine during the long winter nights, going to bed shortly after dark, and not getting up until sunrise? That’s roughly 14 hours a night—a bit too much sleep!


According to historian Roger Ekirch, medieval adults broke up their sleep into two parts, with a time of wakefulness in between. They might use this time for intimacy, prayer, study, light household chores, or even visiting neighbors. After an hour or two, they would go back to bed until the sun rose. This was common practice for everyone, including monks, who were required to get up in the middle of the night as part of their prayer rituals. This was thought to protect the monastic community and its surroundings from demonic attacks. Children were the exception to the “first and second sleep” norm, and it was recommended that they sleep straight through the night.

During the winter months the shortness of the days, and lighter workloads, allowed abundant opportunity for sleeping, but summer was quite different. Field labors in the heat of the sun were more intensive, and exhausting. Under the feudal system, people were required to first labor for their lord or king before they took care of their own fields and gardens. This made for very long, back-breaking days that didn’t always leave enough time to sleep, especially in the northernmost areas of Europe. The remedy? Afternoon naps.

Naps were also common year-round for those who were expected to work at night while everyone else slept, or for those whose jobs entailed a lot of waiting. These would primarily be guards and servants. If they couldn’t go home to nap in bed, they would settle in someplace where they could sleep sitting up.

More information about sleep will be in my next post, where I’ll talk about beds, sleeping arrangements, and sleeping attire.

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

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.

Medieval Monday: Christmas Day!

christmas-nativityMake we merry both rich and poor,
For now is the time of Christmas!

Let no man come into this hall,
Groom, page, nor yet marshal,
But that some sport he bring withal!
For now is the time of Christmas!

If that he say he cannot sing,
Some other sport then let him bring!
That it may please at this feasting
For now is the time of Christmas!

If he say, he can nought do,
Then for my love ask him no mo!
But to the stocks then let him go!
For now is the time of Christmas!
(from a 15th century carol)

christmas-day2Christmas day is here! Giving gifts is a big part of our present day holiday tradition, but not so in the medieval world. Gifts weren’t given until New Year, which was a continuation of Roman tradition. Instead, Christmas was a time for charity and feasting. Boar was a central part of the feast for those who could afford it, and the head was brought in with great ceremony, usually accompanied by a celebratory song or poem. For those who could not afford to have one, a pie shaped like a boar would do nicely. In wealthier households, venison, game birds, and beef would also be on the menu. A typical Christmas meal might also include bread, cheese, mutton, pork, mince pies, apples, nuts, puddings, fish, stews, soups, sauces, ale, and wine. Food was seasoned with spices like ginger, cloves, saffron, and pepper.

Christmas feasts alleviated the suffering of the poor, for whom winter was the most difficult time; the fields were empty and demands on labor were considerably smaller. Reserves were shrinking as belts tightened by necessity. Rich and poor celebrated Christmas together, with the rich encouraged to open their homes to the needy in honor of the Christ child, and the poor asked to contribute some small thing, such as a loaf of bread, or fuel for the fire. At Glastonbury abbey manor, each peasant was entitled to the following at Christmas dinner:

“He ought to have his dinner at Christmas in the Lord’s court; himself and his wife, that is two white loaves of bread and two dishes of meat and sufficient ale, clearly and honourably. And he ought to bring with him a dish and a cup and a table cloth. And he ought to bring before Christmas one bundle of firewood to cook his dish. And if he does not do this he shall have his victual uncooked.”

christmas-day1In 1314 it was recorded that “some tenants at North Curry in Somerset received loaves of bread, beef and bacon with mustard, chicken soup, cheese and as much beer as they could drink for the day.” Charity was not just encouraged, but in some cases was required in exchange for certain legal rights or favors.

Entertainment was part of the Christmas feast, too. Musicians played and sung, and actors performed. Table games, most notably chess or backgammon, and cards were popular, as were masked social games—even though they were sometimes lewd. The celebration wasn’t over the night of December 25th—Christmas continued on through January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany.

Enjoy the rest of Christmas day, and the remaining 12 days of Christmas!