There is no doubt now, that fall is here. The weather is getting cooler, and the labors of summer have produced an abundant harvest. It is a time of plenty in the medieval world, albeit a cautious one. The harsh winter months are only just ahead, and what has been so carefully grown and collected must now also be preserved to ensure the survival of the community.
The last of the winter grains are being sown in the fallow fields, and grapes are still being harvested for the production of wine, and a common medieval condiment called verjuice; a clear, sour juice made from unripe grapes, apples, berries, or other fruit. It was used mainly for cooking and adding flavor to foods.
October was a time to gather whatever wild nuts and fruits might still be found and preserve them for winter. It was also a time to make decisions about livestock, because storing enough food to feed them all through winter was costly and impractical. Cattle were the first to be fattened by permitting them to wander the fields and eat from leftover stubble. Sheep were the last, because they cropped everything so close to the ground they didn’t leave much behind.
Pigs, a common sight in every village, were allowed to roam free and forage wherever they could year round. They were only semi-domesticated animals; lean and with coarse hair. They typically lived on what they could find, including scraps, and when well-fed in fall, quickly put on weight. It was said that “a pig that needed to be fed on grain was not worth keeping.” Since acorns were a favorite food of pigs, woods full of oak trees were especially prized for fattening them. Beechnuts, hazel nuts, and hawes were also favored by swineherds, who watched for the first signs that those trees were ready to drop. Poultry would be fattened as well, particularly geese, then slaughtered before they could lose their fat.
The 14th century husband-to-be who wrote the Medieval Home Companion had the following advice for his young bride regarding the month of October:
In October plant peas and beans a finger deep in the earth and a handbreadth from each other. Plant the biggest beans, for when they are new these prove themselves to be larger than the smaller ones can ever become. Plant only a few of them, and at each waning of the moon afterward, a few more so that if some of them freeze, the others will not. If you want to plant pierced peas, sow them in weather that is dry and pleasant, not rainy, for if rain water gets into the openings of the peas, they will crack and split in two and not germinate.
Up until All Saints’ Day you can always transplant cabbages. When they are so much eaten by caterpillars that there is nothing left of the leaves except the ribs, all will come back as sprouts if they are transplanted. Remove the lower leaves and replant the cabbages to the depth of the upper bud. Do not replant the stems that are completely defoliated; leave these in the ground, for they will send up sprouts. If you replant in summer and the weather is dry, you must pour water in the hole; this is not necessary in wet weather
If caterpillars eat the cabbages, spread cinders under the cabbages when it rains and the caterpillars will die. If you look under the leaves of the cabbages, you will find there a great collection of small white morsels in a heap. This is where the caterpillars are born, and therefore you should cut off the part with these eggs and throw it away. Leeks are sown in season, then transplanted in October and November.
There are more Tales from the Green Valley to enjoy! This episode includes roofing with timbers and thatch, gardening, harvesting pears, period footwear, fattening the pigs, spit roasting lamb, storing/checking fruit for winter. Want to learn more about daily medieval life? Check out the Medieval Monday Index.