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.

Fantasy Art Friday

Get inspired with this week’s Fantasy Art Friday, where fun fantasy artwork is combined with a writing prompt to get your creative juices flowing.


Here’s a sight to stop your heart…a dragon’s head in the morning mist, rising above the tree tops. The swordsman looking up at it seems so tiny by comparison–this monster could easily eat him whole and use his sword as a toothpick afterwards. The headstone on the ground is not an especially good omen either. But heroes are made, not born, and legends are full of defeated dragons, so perhaps this brave warrior has some tricks up his sleeve.

Has he happened upon this dragon by chance? Or has he come prepared for the challenge? It’s up to you to decide his fate…

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“Dragon in the Woods” by Simon Fetscher

 

Mystery, Magic, and Faith

Are you signed up yet to get my bi-monthly newsletter? It features insights into my writing, author updates, giveaways, lots of FREE book promotions and more. When you subscribe, you also get the second book in the Wind Rider Chronicles free. Below I’ve shared a section from my first January newsletter–check it out! Click to see the entire newsletter and browse this month’s free and discounted books.

In Journey to Aviad, Elowyn carries a little satchel with her initial on it that Morganne had made for her—it’s full of herbs meant to ward off evil. This was a common thing to do in the Middle Ages, as certain plants were thought to fend off everything from demons and witches, to just plain bad luck. Medieval people lived in a world full of danger and mystery, which was very often explained with superstitions.

The pervasive thought was that there were two kinds of magic. Black magic was demonic, and therefore harmful. Magic of this sort was feared and avoided, and was used to explain accidents, unknown illnesses, and other tragedies. White magic was supposedly based on the power of nature (God’s Creation). Using charms, talismans, and spells, performing sunrise rituals while sowing crops, or reciting incantations while weaving fabric, are just a few examples of white magic. The study of astrology and alchemy fell into this category as well.

The Church disapproved of them all, but pre-Christian paganism was still very much embedded in Medieval culture and had intertwined itself with Christianity. Folk-beliefs, like the belief in fairies for example, was everyday common sense in places like the British Isles—and had been for hundreds of years. Local priests could not convince people otherwise and eventually gave up trying, despite sharp pressure from the Catholic Church.

It’s easy to see how the medieval period lends itself so well to fantasy literature, which often relies on various forms of magic to add intrigue and to move the story. I have included some of these elements in my series for the sake of flavor and authenticity, like Elowyn’s little bag of herbs and the superstitions held by the people of Minhaven. But since I am writing Christian fiction, I have been very careful about the way I handle magic so that there is a true distinction between what is demonic, what is divine, and what is merely misguided belief. Hopefully my readers noticed that when Elowyn gave away her little bag of herbs, she did not seek to replace it with another. It was a small milestone on her journey to spiritual maturity, as she replaced her belief in the empty “magic” it contained, with a much stronger faith in Aviad and His ability to protect her.

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Elowyn was convinced that by removing the coin so soon after the man’s brutal death, she had somehow interfered with his ascension into the afterlife, causing his spirit to appear before her in the night. How else could she explain it? He had sought her out from beyond the dead, and pointed directly at the pouch that held the coin. It was quite obviously an object not meant for her to keep, and it had to be returned at the proper time of day.

Elowyn knew very little about the workings of magic, but it was common knowledge that the rites of good magic were most effective at sunrise. That was usually when cures were tried, when newly planted crops were blessed, and when pilgrims to the shrines petitioned their most desperate prayers. Nearly any ritual of importance, even the harvesting of garden herbs, was best performed at sunrise. If she did not make it before then, she would have to wait another day, and perhaps risk another terrifying vision in the night.

~ from Chapter 2, Journey to Aviad

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.

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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 November

butcheringThe Anglo Saxons referred to November as the “blood month,” because it was time to begin slaughtering those animals which would not be kept through the winter. The traditional time for butchering animals was Martinmas (November 11th), though the butchering and processing of meat could continue through January depending on the weather. While some meat would be eaten fresh, it was important to have a supply of beef, pork, chevon (goat), and mutton (sheep) to last throughout the winter months. The preservation of meat was a laborious task. The flesh would have to be soaked in brine for days before it could be hung to dry and smoked. Meat might also be pickled, dried, or salted. Bacon in particular could be rubbed with spices and honey before it was smoked. Every part of the animal was used for something. The hides were used for making leather and parchment, hooves for gelatin, and bone and horns had a myriad of uses. Offal, blood, and bone marrow had to be eaten right away, and were turned into seasonal treats. Sausage and puddings were fall delicacies, providing a use for blood and organ meats. They were cooked with onions, garlic, and a variety of spices that made them especially tasty.

cookingWhen the fresh meat had run out, it was back to dried, salted meats, which weren’t especially nice to eat. Beef and mutton had to be simmered for a very long time to reduce the salt content enough to make them palatable. Bacon would be added directly to pottage, a thick stew that included vegetables, and grains like barley. Pottage was a staple food, often left cooking in a kettle over the fire for days on end, with the family simply adding water and ingredients to it as needed to keep it going.

Pork was the most popular preserved meat, especially for peasants. Pigs were easy to keep because they could forage for themselves, and after slaughter, their meat absorbed less of the preserving salt, helping it to retain more of its moisture. The leftover fat from slaughtering was used as lard, and also for the making of tallow candles. These would be vital to have for the dark, cold months ahead.

fattening-pigsThose pigs that weren’t being butchered (or at least not yet) were still being fattened in November. Acorns, beechnuts, hawes, hazelnuts, and other foods could still be actively foraged or collected for later feedings. But pigs weren’t the only ones out foraging for the last of nature’s bounty. Wild berries and apples, nuts, plums, and hips were great sources of nutrition—they just had to be collected. Coleworts (kohlrabi, cabbage, turnips) could also be harvested and stored someplace dark and cold. Sometimes they would simply be left in the ground and covered with a thick layer of straw. When needed, they could be uncovered, gathered, and eaten.

collecting-reedsNovember was also a time to collect reeds and osiers. These would be cured to use as thatch for roofs, or turned into baskets and nets for later use. Rushes became candle wicks, and nettles could be used instead of flax to make a durable thread. Bracken could be used as winter bedding for cattle. Firewood had to be collected as well, since much would be needed for heat and other purposes. There were restrictions, however. Dead wood could be gathered from the ground, or pruned from trees. People were not allowed to cut down live trees to use as firewood—this was a way to ensure that forested areas would continue to be a resource for many seasons to come.


Enjoy another Tales from the Green Valley. Fair warning, some may find the images in this episode disturbing as they slaughter, butcher, and prepare one of the farm pigs just as it would have been done hundreds of years ago. 

In this month’s episode: Finishing the cow shed, making wattle and daub walls, pig slaughter, butchering, and cooking. Gathering medlars, scrubbing a table with salt, roof thatching.

 

Medieval Monday: ‘Broken on the Wheel’

Archaeologists discover medieval man ‘broken on the wheel’

An archaeological dig in Milan has uncovered the remains of a young man who suffered massive injuries, likely caused by torture and execution while being ‘broken on wheel’.

The team of researchers from Università degli Studi di Milano were examining the remains of 56 individuals that were discovered buried at San Ambrogio square in the Italian city of Milan. These skeletons date from between the era of the Roman Empire to the sixteenth-century, but their focus was on individual found with two buckles. Radiochemical tests were performed, which dates the body to between the years 1290 and 1430. He was between 17 and 20 years old when he died.

The individual was found with numerous wounds, which the researchers noticed as having a very specific distribution. All the long bones on his forearms and legs were fractured in a way that the weapon hit the bones perpendicularly. He also had blunt force injuries to his face, a stab wound that hit his vertebrae, and a deep fracture at the back of his skull, which the researchers believe was caused during a clumsy attempt to decapitate him.

Continue reading…


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

Medieval Monday: The Service of Magic

In medieval England magic was a service industry used by rich and poor alike

by: Emily Costello

Chances are that when you hear the words “medieval magic”, the image of a witch will spring to mind: wizened old crones huddled over a cauldron containing unspeakable ingredients such as eye of newt. Or you might think of people brutally prosecuted by overzealous priests. But this picture is inaccurate.

To begin with, fear of witchcraft – selling one’s soul to demons to inflict harm on others – was more of an early modern phenomenon than a medieval one, only beginning to take hold in Europe at the tail end of the 15th century. This vision also clouds from view the other magical practices in pre-modern England.

Magic is a universal phenomenon. Every society in every age has carried some system of belief and in every society there have been those who claim the ability to harness or manipulate the supernatural powers behind it. Even today, magic subtly pervades our lives – some of us have charms we wear to exams or interviews and others nod at lone magpies to ward off bad luck. Iceland has a government-recognised elf-whisperer, who claims the ability to see, speak to, and negotiate with the supernatural creatures still believed to live in Iceland’s landscape.

While today we might write this off as an overactive imagination or the stuff of fantasy, in the medieval period magic was widely accepted to be very real. A spell or charm could change a person’s life: sometimes for the worse, as with curses – but equally, if not more often, for the better.

Magic was understood to be capable of doing a range of things, from the marvellous to the surprisingly mundane. At the mundane end, magic spells were in many ways little more than a tool. They were used to find lost objects, inspire love, predict the future, heal illnesses and discover buried treasure. In this way, magic provided solutions to everyday problems, especially problems that could not be solved through other means.

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Continue reading…


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