Medieval Monday: More Labors of November

November was a busy month in the medieval world. Last week’s post focused mainly on the fall slaughter and preservation of meat for the coming months, but there was much more to be done. Garlic and beans were sown in November–typically around the 20th, which was St. Edmund’s day–but the heavy labors of the field were largely complete. It was time to take on other onerous, but necessary  tasks such as digging ditches and trenches, and cleaning out the farm yard and latrines. Animal and human waste was spread as a fertilizer for gardens and fields. Walls would be checked and repaired in November, and molehills removed.

beehives2Beehives were given attention to make sure that the bees were getting enough nourishment to survive the coming winter. Young hives were in particular danger of starving since they’d had less time to store up food for themselves. According to Thomas Tusser (English farmer and poet), the weight of the hives should be checked and the bees fed if needed. “Go look to thy bees; if the hive be too light, set water and honey with rosemary dight. Which set in a dish full of sticks in the hive, from danger of famine, yea save them alive.”  

sheep-folds2As long as the winter didn’t become too harsh, many of the sheep could be held back from the fall slaughter. Sheep were able to live on terrain that was unsuitable for other animals. They had no trouble grazing in areas that were rocky and too difficult to clear for agricultural use. Sheep could also be used to crop the farming fields short, fertilizing them with droppings as they went. As the weather grew colder, their thick wool helped to protect them, as well as sheep folds, made out of wooden hurdles. These were woven panels, typically made out of hazel wood, which could be moved around as needed. They kept the sheep enclosed and blocked much of the wind at the same time.  If the weather turned too much for them to survive outdoors, or there was a shortage of food, the sheep could always be slaughtered later to provide an immediate source of fresh meat.

sheep-folds-3Like the bees, sheep required special attention in autumn, however. There were certain illnesses they were likely to contract, such as sheep scab and liver-fluke. Liver-fluke was caused by the sheep eating snails or mildew off of fallen leaves. Both illnesses were cured by applying tar–an important substance for medieval peasants to have on hand for a variety of uses, such as keeping the drafts out of homes, and making ships water tight.

 

Medieval Monday: Wool

parchmentIn my last post I talked a little bit about sheep, and how important they were in the medieval world. They could survive on rough terrain and in moderately cold weather, and they provided a variety of important products, such as meat, milk (which could be drunk or made into cheese), parchment, and of course, wool. Even their bones could be used to make tools, like sewing needles, and the ankles were turned into dice for games.

Though wool could be taken from other animals, the primary source was sheep. Not all wool was alike, however. The quality varied among different breeds and even colors, with white sheep producing a finer product that could be more easily dyed to desirable colors. Once a sheep was shorn, its wool was separated out into different grades, each one used for a different purpose.

Sheep shearing and reaping 15th COnce the wool had been separated out, it had to be cleaned to remove dirt, foreign materials, and oils from the sheep’s skin. For the coarser wool, soap and water was usually good enough. For the finer fibers, harsher cleaning agents were used, such as lye, or stale urine. Once cleaned and rinsed multiple times, wool was left to dry in the sun, then beaten with sticks to remove tangles, matts, or any other remaining foreign materials the cleansing process had missed.

dying-woolAt this stage, the fibers might be dyed, though the mordant often needed to prevent the color from fading also made the fibers difficult to work with. For this reason, it was more common to wait until later in the process to use dyes. It seems strange that after working so hard to cleanse the fibers from oils, at this stage they would now be added back in. Olive oil or butter might be used as a protectant for the fibers—typically the finer, higher quality ones.

Combing came next. Combs made of either wood or metal were pulled through the fibers to further separate them. Cards were eventually developed, though in some parts of Europe their use was banned. Cards were flat boards with rows of metal hooks. Wool would be transferred back and forth, from one card to another, the result being a finer product. Different wools could also be blended together using this process—a possible reason for the ban.

spinning-and-weavingOnce the wool had been combed or carded, it could finally be spun into yarn that would be used on a loom to make usable fabric. Wool that had come from the coarse, outer layer of the sheep was longer and thicker. These fibers would be spun into worsted yarn and had a rougher quality, but were very strong. Fibers that had come from the inner layers—once the sheep’s insulation—were curlier and shorter.  They were warmer and softer, but weaker, and were spun into woolen yarns of varying quality. Thicker, heavier yarns were used as the warp threads on a loom, and the lighter, finer yarns were used as the weft threads. Woolen yarn needed additional processing to give it strength and a smoother feel. Worsted and woolen yarns could be woven into anything from a tough, water repellent, working fabric, to an extremely fine, luxurious cloth bested only by silk in quality. Wool had a myriad of uses, from clothing, to carpets, draperies, and furniture coverings, to felted saddle pads, hats, shoes, scabbards, and more.

The following video has additional information about the wool trade and a historic medieval wool house (built in 1338) that still stands in Southampton, England.

Medieval Monday: More Labors of November

 

November was a busy month in the medieval world. Last week’s post focused mainly on the fall slaughter and preservation of meat for the coming months, but there was much more to be done. Garlic and beans were sown in November–typically around the 20th, which was St. Edmund’s day–but the heavy labors of the field were largely complete. It was time to take on other onerous, but necessary  tasks such as digging ditches and trenches, and cleaning out the farm yard and latrines. Animal and human waste was spread as a fertilizer for gardens and fields. Walls would be checked and repaired in November, and molehills removed.

beehives2Beehives were given attention to make sure that the bees were getting enough nourishment to survive the coming winter. Young hives were in particular danger of starving since they’d had less time to store up food for themselves. According to Thomas Tusser (English farmer and poet), the weight of the hives should be checked and the bees fed if needed. “Go look to thy bees; if the hive be too light, set water and honey with rosemary dight. Which set in a dish full of sticks in the hive, from danger of famine, yea save them alive.”  

sheep-folds2As long as the winter didn’t become too harsh, many of the sheep could be held back from the fall slaughter. Sheep were able to live on terrain that was unsuitable for other animals. They had no trouble grazing in areas that were rocky and too difficult to clear for agricultural use. Sheep could also be used to crop the farming fields short, fertilizing them with droppings as they went. As the weather grew colder, their thick wool helped to protect them, as well as sheep folds, made out of wooden hurdles. These were woven panels, typically made out of hazel wood, which could be moved around as needed. They kept the sheep enclosed and blocked much of the wind at the same time.  If the weather turned too much for them to survive outdoors, or there was a shortage of food, the sheep could always be slaughtered later to provide an immediate source of fresh meat.

sheep-folds-3Like the bees, sheep required special attention in autumn, however. There were certain illnesses they were likely to contract, such as sheep scab and liver-fluke. Liver-fluke was caused by the sheep eating snails or mildew off of fallen leaves. Both illnesses were cured by applying tar–an important substance for medieval peasants to have on hand for a variety of uses, such as keeping the drafts out of homes, and making ships water tight.