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.

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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.

 

Medieval Monday: The Labors of August

The most crucial labor in August was harvesting and threshing the rye and winter wheat, which would have to sustain the community through many months to come. August 1st began the feast of Lammas, when the first grain of the new harvest was consecrated and made into bread for the Eucharist. There would be more harvest celebrations yet to come in September and October, but Lammas celebrated its beginning, and was as much a symbol of the spiritual harvest as it was the physical.

SickleWheat was cut down with a sickle; a short handled tool with a curved blade. Those reaping the wheat would grasp a handful of it, well below the heads of grain, and cut the stems. They would be bundled into small sheaves at first, then into larger ones called shocks that could be left standing in the sun to dry out.  Once all of the grain had been harvested from the field, first the poor could come through and glean any fallen grain, then the livestock would be allowed to eat down the stalks and forage.

Long stretches of dry weather were extremely important for a good harvest. Too much damp weather could ruin the grain, or leave it tainted with ergot, a dangerous, toxic fungus that could do severe physical and neurological damage, causing hallucinations and paranoia. There has even been some speculation by historians correlating the most intense periods of witch hunting and inquisitions, with the worst outbreaks of ergot tainted food.

If grain could not be dried out in the sun, due to unseasonable weather or climates with damp or short growing seasons, grain dying kilns might be used. These were shaped much like regular medieval ovens, but larger, with well-constructed flues.

threshingOnce the grain stalks were dried out, the next task would be threshing and winnowing. This process separated the useful heads of grain, which could be made into flour, from the useless stalks and chaff that could not be eaten.

A flail was used to beat the wheat bundles, which shook loose the grain. If done outdoors, the chaff would naturally blow away on the wind—but it might also take some of the grain with it. Therefore, threshing was often done inside barns. This made it an activity that could continue through the fall, and even winter months if necessary.

I found this very short video that shows someone using a flail to separate grain from wheat stalks. There is even a portion of it where you can actually see the wind lifting away the chaff. The hand-crank machine he uses at the end is obviously not period, but everything before that is informative for those who want to see how this was done. Can you imagine doing this kind of labor for hours at a time, days on end? I would imagine it was a sweaty, back-breaking task in the August heat—with no possibility of a soothing shower at the end of the day!

Below that is the August video for Tales from the Green Valley. Sadly it’s their last month in the valley, but since I didn’t start with episode 1, I will keep posting them each month until I’ve gone through the entire year. They will stay in my Medieval Monday Index indefinitely, so those of you doing research can go back and find them at any time. In this episode they discuss cutting, drying, and bringing in the grain harvest, taking out the geese, making writing quills, duster brushes, and collecting goose down, making lights from rushes and animal tallow, and making a period goose meat pie.

 

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: 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.