Medieval Monday: The Labors of June

In the Middle Ages, the arrival of June meant not only a change in the weather, but a shift in daily labors, and in what was on the menu to eat.

Labors of the month JuneWhile most crops were harvested much later in the summer, hay was the first to be cut in June, though it was typically poor quality. In a society so dependent on animals for survival, haying was a vital community activity, with the lord’s fields taking priority over all the others. This was a labor carried out by men, women, and children. They worked in groups under the supervision of a reeve that had been elected by the peasants themselves. The men cut the hay with long scythes, each going through about one acre per day. Women and girls were responsible for raking and turning it. If the hay was not able to dry out, it would rot and be of no use.

On the edge of the field, there would be a man with a whetstone who could make quick repairs to dull and broken scythes as needed throughout the day. A horn would be blown at dusk to signal the end of the work day.  Sometimes a lord would provide the laborers with a meal and ale, or allow villagers to take home as much hay as they could carry home on their scythe. Anyone who tried to pile on too much was likely to lose their load on the way and go home with nothing.

At the end of June, it was time to pull weeds from the wheat fields, plow fallow fields, and uproot thistles. However, it was considered unlucky in England to pull thistles before June 24th (St. John’s day).  Anyone who did would find they would only multiply three times over.

Bee keeping was another important activity of June, which was when they were expected to begin swarming. Watching a hive was typically children’s work, as they could do so while spinning or doing some other household task. When a swarm formed, it would be followed by villagers banging pots and making other loud noises to “help the bees settle” and also stake their claim on the swarm.

During the month of June, sheep would be taken to a pond or a stream to be washed before shearing. Running water was preferred because their wool tended to be so filthy. Other tasks for June included repairing barns and outbuildings, clearing away brush, digging hop plots, fixing broken carts, gathering hemp and flax, and making salt.


Enjoy another episode of Tales from the Green Valley, where some of the above labors and others are shown. The video demonstrates the washing and shearing of sheep, dairy production (making cheese), field labors, special foods, and June festivities. For more information about wool production, you can revisit another of my posts on the subject. Check out my Medieval Index for a variety of other topics related to the Middle Ages.

 

Medieval Monday: The Labors of May

May Day marks the beginning of summer in the medieval world. The weather is really warming up, and there are lots of new chores to begin. Planting and harrowing continues, and weeding the grain fields becomes an important chore. Cabbages, leeks, onions, and garlic are ready to be planted, as are those plants used in fabric production like hemp, flax, madder, and woad.

In the Medieval Home Companion, the author advised his young wife, “Throughout the months of April and May sow the green vegetables that are eaten in June and July. Cut the green vegetables of summer, leaving their roots in the earth. After winter, the roots put out new shoots, and you must hoe and loosen the soil around them. Sow new ones, and pick the new shoots of the old. From April until the feast of the Magdalene is a good time to sow green vegetables…Set out white cabbages and round cabbages that are sown in February and March. In May, one finds new beans, turnips, and radishes.”

Meadows and pastures are growing lush and green, finally able to sustain new lambs and calves who have been weaned from their mothers. Their milk will now be used for dairy production; cream, cheese, and butter.

Bees are swarming too, and can be captured to start new hives to provide honey and beeswax.


Enjoy another episode of “Tales from the Green Valley”. Topics included for the month of May are dairy production (milking, churning butter) , plowing, harrowing, charcoal burning, sowing peas, making fishing rods and tackle, fishing, making straw rope, baskets, and thatch for roofing, period foods, and celebrating May Day.


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

 

Medieval Monday: The Labors of April

Spring is here! Farm work really gets underway—harrowing and sowing are important chores for this month. Crops planted in April included grains, like barley and oats, and legumes like beans, peas, and vetches. Grain seed was planted by standing with one’s back to the breeze, and flinging a handful of seeds outward from the waist. This was a quick and easy way to create a dense growth of grain. It took four bushels of seed for each acre planted.

By contrast, legumes were more carefully planted. A hole was poked into the soil with a “dibbler stick,” and the seed dropped in. It took three bushels of beans or peas to plant each acre. The field was harrowed after all the planting was done by dragging a tool like a giant rake across the field. This covered all of the newly planted seeds with soil.

Flax and hemp were also planted in April. These had a myriad of uses, the most notable of which was fiber production. In addition to large crop fields, household gardens were cleaned up and made ready for planting in April as well. Herbs and coleworts would be the first things planted.

Calving continued, and the lambs were continually being weaned, which meant dairy work could begin for the spring. Cream, milk, cheese, and butter were back on the menu again. Pigs also began to have piglets, so any food leftovers were given to the pigs.

It’s time for another episode of “Tales from the Green Valley” which focuses on what daily life would have been like during the month of April. Subjects in this episode include spring cleaning (and other chores of a medieval housewife), calving, bedding, building/repairing stone walls, field work, and making food from early spring ingredients. Enjoy!


Did you miss last week’s post on medieval tower houses? Click to read and get a visual tour of one towerhouse still standing in Ireland. Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover more topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.

 

 

Medieval Monday: The Labors of March

plowingWarmer March weather meant it was time to finally put most indoor tasks aside and get out into the fields. There weren’t a great variety of tasks associated with March, mainly because preparing the fields for plowing and planting was such an onerous chore that began at dawn and ended at dusk.  Getting the spring grain into the ground was one of the most important tasks of the season.

Medieval farmers generally had a three field system, where each season one of the fields was left unplanted. But leaving it fallow didn’t mean there wasn’t any work involved. The fallow field would have to be plowed several times during the year to keep the weeds under control and at the same time enrich the earth with organic matter. Every time the field was plowed, new weeds would grow, and livestock would be sent out to graze on it, with the added benefit that they would fertilize it with manure as they went.

plowing-and-pruning-in-marchPruning vines and trees continued in March, as did calving. By the end of March, some of the calves were ready to be weaned, which meant milk became available once again. Cows whose calves had been weaned were milked twice per day. The same was true of sheep. Another important food source which returned to the medieval diet in March was eggs. Hens require at least 12 hours of daylight to produce, which meant they began laying around the spring equinox at the end of March, and ceased production around the autumn equinox at the end of September.

This week you can also enjoy another episode of “Tales from the Green Valley” which focuses on what daily life would have been like during the month of March. As I watched, I was reminded that even though certain jobs took priority in specific seasons, many of them happened to some degree all year round. In this video, you will see in action some of the tasks that have been mentioned in past Medieval Monday posts, such as threshing and winnowing, milling wheat into flour, sending pigs out to forage, playing games, and brewing ale and beer for every day drinking. You’ll get to see some period recipes being made as well (like what they did with all that dried, salted fish saved up for winter). Again, it’s worth setting aside half an hour to watch this BBC production. It makes for excellent research and really sends you back in time!



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

 

Medieval Monday: The Green Valley in February

Today’s post is actually a video that I really think you’re going to enjoy! It’s half an hour long, but well worth the time to watch! A small group of historians and archaeologists restored and brought back to life an abandoned village in Wales, re-creating over an entire year what life was like in the early 1600’s. This would be considered the Renaissance period, but the humble agricultural lifestyle really hadn’t changed a whole lot. Much of this would be applicable to the medieval period as well.

This episode is not the start of the series, but it is the video from February, so you can see what would have been happening at this time of year hundreds of years ago. Really, really fascinating stuff. I encourage you to take the time to watch. I will include one episode each month going forward until the year’s worth of videos run out. Aside from doing this type of thing yourself, I can think of no better way to really put yourself back in time, to see and vicariously experience life from another era. Hope you enjoy it!



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

 

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: The Labors of September

“Now in autumn, in which the fruits of the earth are assembled, is the time of reaping and of the vintage, and it signifies the time of the General Judgment, when every single person will receive the reward for his works.” – Hrabanus Maurus (9th Century Theologian)

Summer is nearing its end—can you feel it? For some of us the nights are finally getting cooler, and the birds are just starting to gather and circle in large numbers. With children going back to school, our routines have changed, and we’re already feeling some anticipation about upcoming autumn activities and holidays.

threshing2Medieval people had a heightened awareness of seasonal changes. The onset of autumn brought about a final burst of activity as they prepared themselves to endure an inevitable winter. The grain harvest that had begun in summer continued into fall, with threshing and winnowing of what had already been reaped from the fields. At the same time legumes, such as peas and beans, were gathered after they had dried on the plants. Never letting anything go to waste, the leftover leaves and stems could be used to feed the animals, or plowed under as fertilizer. Some fields would be plowed anew with seeds for rye and winter wheat.

Another significant labor for September was harvesting grapes for wine making. Because of the amount of land needed, and the extensive labor involved in both cultivating and working vineyards, they were usually only kept on large estates or monasteries. Wine was incredibly important in medieval society. It was consumed by most classes with meals, but also had medicinal uses, and spiritual significance as part of the Eucharist.

vineyardNew wine was the most common drink, which had very limited alcohol content. But stronger wines were also produced, and could be watered down if needed. There were many more variations in taste, smell, and color than people are accustomed to today. Wines might be red, gold, pink, green, white, or such a dark red that it had a black appearance. There was also a variety of flavor–some were pleasant and sweet (usually reserved for special occasions), where others might be more bitter, or even vinegary.

winemakingSometimes the type of wine chosen was dependent on the season (and which bodily humors were at play), on age, or on the state of one’s health.  Melancholy was thought to be the dominant humour in autumn, which was “cold and dry.” The Secretum Secretorum advocated specific foods, drink, and activities to combat the negative effects. “Hot moist foods like chicken, lamb and sweet grapes should be eaten and fine old wines drunk, to ward of melancholy…Overmuch exercise and lovemaking are not recommended…but the heat and moisture of warm baths are helpful in keeping melancholy under control.”

beehivesOther labors of September included gathering honey and wax from beehives, which would then be moved to suitable locations for winter. Cows would be bred to ensure there would be young calves in the spring. Any cattle, or other livestock, that there were not enough resources to feed through the winter would be sold or butchered for meat. The meat would then be salted, smoked, or otherwise preserved in anticipation of the winter to come. At the end of September, on Michaelmas, lords and other debtors collected their rents and payments.


In this month’s Tales from the Green Valley, learn about plowing with oxen, sowing seeds, harrowing, baking bread, period clothing, caring for pigs, and making period food (pigeon, apple fritters, mushrooms).

Learn more about life in the Middle Ages by checking out the Medieval Monday Index.