Medieval Monday: The Labors of July

“Summer, you who ripen man’s sustenance with the wholesome heat of the sun’s warmth, should be blessed by all manner of men. May your friendly demeanour, and your attractive, cheerful and happy appearance ever be thanked!”
– Thomas Hoccleve

July was a time for fruit and crops to ripen, and there was always a certain amount of anxiety over how productive the season would be. Too many storms and excessive rain throughout the summer months was not just an inconvenience, but could have serious long-term repercussions in terms of food supply and physical health. Despite the abundance of growing things, July was sometimes a hungry month. Stores from the previous year’s harvest would be running out (or would be gone if the previous year was a lean one), but it was still too early to harvest most crops. Because of this, gathering wild foods became an important task for July. Such foods helped to stretch out the food supply until it was time for the main harvest.

WeedingWeeding was another July activity, done to ensure the health and abundance of crops and garden plants. A sickle was used for weeding along with a stick with a y-shaped end, called a crotch.  The crotch held the weed in place while it was cut down with the sickle.  Nettle and thistle were common weeds that had to be kept in check, along with cornflower, poppies, dock, corn cockle, and charlock.

Book of Hours Harvest2
Depending on where they lived, some communities would begin reaping rye, winter wheat, and vetches in July. Teams of men and women would use scythes to cut down and bind barley, beans, peas, and oats. The sheaves would be kept small enough to carry, and another group would follow behind to stack them. Workers would occasionally switch between cutting, binding, and stacking in order to rest different muscle groups. The Church took as a tithe one sheaf out of every ten.

Wheat was cut at the top, leaving the long stalks still standing. Later on, these stalks could be cut down to feed cattle or they might be plowed under as fertilizer to enrich the soil. After crops were harvested, the poor were allowed to pick through what was left over, and after that, the animals could forage.

Peasants worked long, hard hours during the summer months. Manorial accounts from one 14th century manor in England showed 39 tenants who carried out 2,847 different tasks! But summer was a time for fun as well. The good weather provided opportunities for a variety of outdoor games that brought different classes of people together, from peasants to nobles. These were largely community diversions rather than competitive games between individuals. (However, medieval entertainment is another topic, worthy of its own post!)

One last interesting bit of information I found, which gives insight into the medieval mind and way of life. “According to the Secretum Secretorum…the disruptive humor choler, hot and dry, was the dominant bodily influence in summer, and so excessive hot food and drink, and food likely to cause digestive upsets, were to be avoided. Cool, moist foods like veal dressed with vinegar, cucumber, chicken, pottages based on barley, and sharp fruits like apples and pomegranates were recommended. Anything heating, such as lovemaking and baths, should be avoided.”

Now enjoy another episode of Tales from the Green Valley–this one has some really fascinating information. Learn about doing laundry (making detergent from ash, stain remover from stale urine, rinsing in the stream, and using wringing posts), harvesting hay in the meadow, weeding crops, gathering gooseberries, beans, and roses, and cooking beef, puddings, and other seasonal foods.

Want to know more about the Middle Ages? Use the Medieval Monday Index to see more posts on a variety of topics.

 

Medieval Monday: Bathing

It is pretty commonly known that medieval times would have been full of unpleasant smells, including but not limited to body odor. There are some historical accounts of people bathing only once or twice a year, yet others that say it was a weekly, or at least regular, practice.

There seems to be no dispute that daily washing of the hands and face was common. Even though medieval physicians hadn’t quite linked specific diseases with poor hygiene, (and didn’t thoroughly begin to question that until after the Black Death ravaged Europe) they were starting to understand that dirt and filth should be washed away.

Still, there were certain barriers to bathing, some practical, others rooted in medieval belief systems. It was a subject fraught with uncertainty in terms of both health and morality, and was only recommended at certain times of the year. In summer, when we would think people must be at their dirtiest between the heat and field work, baths were to be avoided because of the belief that certain humours governed the body. In summer’s case, the humour choler (hot and dry).

BathingThe Secretum Secretorum advised against anything heating in summer (including baths), saying that “through all the seasons of the year one must cure contraries with contraries.” This same medical treatise devotes an entire section to bathing, and warns that “excessively long baths lead to fatness and feebleness.” Other health manuals of the day use bathing as a prescription to cure specific conditions, viewing it more as a treatment than a simple cleanliness routine. Another common belief was that water could carry disease—a belief with some validity considering water was not treated then as it is now. The line of thought was that hot water opened the pores, allowing disease to access the body through the skin, not only from the water itself, but even after the bath by “infections on the air.”

Moral objections to bathing came from the Church, which over time added more and more restrictions, including the prohibition of bathing without clothes. These restrictions were largely a reaction to the problems of public bathing, which led to “immorality, promiscuous sex, and diseases.” Public bath houses, which had been around since even before Roman times, were indeed often places where questionable behavior took place—particularly those where men and women bathed together. Some bath houses were little more than fronts for brothels.

Private bathing was a different matter. The poor rarely had the time or means for a full bath, which involved the laborious task of carrying and heating water by the bucketful to fill a wooden tub. Bathing at home for a peasant would typically be little more than washing off parts of the body with a rag and a basin of cold water. For the wealthy (including wealthy monasteries), bathing was far more common. While some royals claimed to avoid it for moral reasons, others were known to indulge frequently, even making bathing a form of entertainment for guests. Large wooden tubs would be lined with either thick cloth or sponges so there would be something soft to sit on. They would be tented for privacy, and filled with warm water by servants. Bath water might also be infused with pleasant smelling herbs.

In lieu of bathing for those who either feared its dangers, or had moral objections, the body might be rubbed with scented rags or its odors masked with strong perfumes. Men sometimes wore a bag of fragrant herbs beneath the shirt, and women applied scented powders.

 

Medieval Monday: The Labors of July

“Summer, you who ripen man’s sustenance with the wholesome heat of the sun’s warmth, should be blessed by all manner of men. May your friendly demeanour, and your attractive, cheerful and happy appearance ever be thanked!”
– Thomas Hoccleve

July was a time for fruit and crops to ripen, and there was always a certain amount of anxiety over how productive the season would be. Too many storms and excessive rain throughout the summer months was not just an inconvenience, but could have serious long-term repercussions in terms of food supply and physical health. Despite the abundance of growing things, July was a hungry month. Stores from the previous year’s harvest would be running out (or would be gone if the previous year was a lean one), but it was still too early to harvest most crops. Because of this, gathering wild foods became an important task for July. Such foods helped to stretch out the food supply until it was time for the main harvest.

WeedingWeeding was another July activity, done to ensure the health and abundance of crops and garden plants. A sickle was used for weeding along with a stick with a y-shaped end, called a crotch.  The crotch held the weed in place while it was cut down with the sickle.  Nettle and thistle were common weeds that had to be kept in check, along with cornflower, poppies, dock, corn cockle, and charlock.

Book of Hours Harvest2
Depending on where they lived, some communities would begin reaping rye, winter wheat, and vetches in July. Teams of men and women would use scythes to cut down and bind barley, beans, peas, and oats. The sheaves would be kept small enough to carry, and another group would follow behind to stack them. Workers would occasionally switch between cutting, binding, and stacking in order to rest different muscle groups. The Church took as a tithe one sheaf out of every ten.

Wheat was cut at the top, leaving the long stalks still standing. Later on, these stalks could be cut down to feed cattle or they might be plowed under as fertilizer to enrich the soil. After crops were harvested, the poor were allowed to pick through what was left over, and after that, the animals could forage.

Peasants worked long, hard hours during the summer months. Manorial accounts from one 14th century manor in England showed 39 tenants who carried out 2,847 different tasks! But summer was a time for fun as well. The good weather provided opportunities for a variety of outdoor games that brought different classes of people together, from peasants to nobles. These were largely community diversions rather than competitive games between individuals. (However, medieval entertainment is another topic, worthy of its own post!)

One last interesting bit of information I found, which gives insight into the medieval mind and way of life. “According to the Secretum Secretorum…the disruptive humor choler, hot and dry, was the dominant bodily influence in summer, and so excessive hot food and drink, and food likely to cause digestive upsets, were to be avoided. Cool, moist foods like veal dressed with vinegar, cucumber, chicken, pottages based on barley, and sharp fruits like apples and pomegranates were recommended. Anything heating, such as lovemaking and baths, should be avoided.”