Making Medieval Fabric

Teasel

Dried teasel head

Last week we looked at the processes wool underwent before it got to the weaver. Now we’ve arrived at the loom.

Of the processes described in the previous post,  there were two that were quite similar: combing and carding. They each produced a different type of thread, however. The shorter fibres that had been carded were called woollens and the longer ones that had been combed were called worsteds. Woollens were often used for the weft threads on a loom and the worsteds for the warp.  The warp was made by attaching the spun thread to the loom at right angles to the weaver i.e. running away from him. The weft was the moving thread attached to the shuttle.

I’m not sure whether this next process – sizing – was carried out before or after the loom was warped. The warp threads were smoothed by coating them with something so that they would provide less resistance to the weft thread. There was always a danger that the warp threads, which were held under tension on the loom, would snap, and the passing of the shuttle between them would cause abrasions. I’ve seen a recipe on the internet for sizing using gelatine. I don’t know how medieval it is, but it would certainly flatten any fluffy fibres in the thread. It would also be easy to wash it out later.

From the pictures I’ve seen of medieval looms, weaving could either be fairly straightforward or extremely complicated. Simple looms for wide pieces of plain cloth were structured like an open cube, while others were a series of cubes joined together, going up rather out, needing two people to operate them. These latter produced complicated patterns on the fabric.

You would think that once it was woven the fabric would be ready to be made into garments, but, no, there were still more things to be done to it. It could be calendered, which meant a hot press was used on it. Until the late Middle Ages a slickstone or a piece of rounded, heated glass were rubbed over it. You can see one here on my Pinterest board. The purpose of this was to give a shine to the fabric, or to make it thinner.

The woven cloth was usually fulled. This encouraged it to felt, which produced a firmer fabric. It was soaked in an alkaline solution, most often fuller’s earth (a type of clay) and water, but stale, human urine could also be used. The purpose of this was to remove any grease or dirt still in the fabric. The fabric was rinsed, then beaten with hands or feet. An early use of water power was to hammer fabrics as part of the fulling process. Large wooden hammers, which wouldn’t damage the fabric, were used.

Here’s a short video of a fulling mill in action.

Here’s Tony Robinson going a bit over the top as a medieval fuller.

Fulling caused cloth to shrink by a third, so the cloth was stretched as it dried. The frame on which it was stretched was called a tenterframe. The fabric was stretched on small, closely-spaced hooks – tenterhooks.

There was one final process for some fabrics. Teasling made the fabric even softer. The cloth was hung over a beam and dried teasel heads set in a wooden frame were drawn over the surface to raise a nap. You can see this illustrated in my Pinterest board. The nap was shorn and, on good quality fabrics, the teasling would start again, up to four times. This must have been a scary part of the process. The shears were long and one slip could ruin the cloth that it had taken so long to make.

Here’s a clip from a recent episode of Les Feux de Guédelon which illustrates another use of teasels. I’m not sure how efficient this method of carding would have been. The tool itself, however, looks very much like the implement to teasel fabric. There are subtitles.

 

Sources:

Textiles and Clothing 1150 – 1450 by Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard, Kay Staniland

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Processing Medieval Wool

Wool

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the wool trade in the fourteenth century. I listed some of the processes the fleece underwent on its way to becoming cloth. Although I have a fairly good idea what happens to wool before it finds itself on my knitting needles, I hadn’t even heard of some of the things that happened to medieval wool.

The list of processes comes from Textiles and Clothing 1150 – 1450, so I can’t be entirely certain that they were all used in the fourteenth century. The authors also point out that not all of the processes were used in all parts of England.

The first process on the list stumped me. I had no idea what willowing was. Fortunately, I found the blog of Josefin Waltin, who explained that you beat the wool that has been shorn from a sheep with two willow sticks. The purpose is to get the vegetable matter out of the wool. If you’ve ever seen sheep in a field, you’ll know that it has bits of sticks, leaves, grass and other (even less appealing) things stuck in its fleece. You don’t want any of that in a fabric that you’re going to wear. Waltin says the other reason for willowing is to open the locks (the small bits of wool that stick together after the sheep has been shorn).

Here’s a video Waltin made of her willowing some wool.  It looks like an enjoyable process.

The next process is washing. As we’ve just seen, fleeces are not clean, even after they’ve been willowed, and they need to be washed. When it comes from the sheep, the fleece is full of lanolin, which is a wax secreted by the sheep. This was a delicate process, since the water used had to be hot to get rid of the lanolin, but agitating the wool in hot water would cause it to felt.

Once it was clean,  the wool could be dyed, or used with its natural colour. Some monks, for example, wore habits of undyed wool. I’m planning on doing a separate post on dying, as it’s a huge subject.

After it had been dyed, the wool could be blended with wool of another colour. This meant combing wools of different colours together. Despite the willowing and the washing, there could still be dirt in the wool. Combing removed more of it, but its main purpose was to remove imperfect fibres and to make all the threads run in one direction ready for spinning. The combs have evil-looking spikes set in rows. The wool is placed onto the set of spikes that isn’t going to move, then combed at a right angle with the second set.

There are images of the processes on my Pinterest board here and there’s a video of Josefin Waltin combing and spinning in the fourteenth-century style below.

Carding is a similar process to combing, except that the spikes are shorter and are arranged all over a square paddle. The carder holds one in each hand and uses them like brushes, pulling the wool from one card to the other until all the fibres goe in the same direction, so that it can be spun. Cloths were often woven from a warp that had been combed and a weft that had been carded.

Bowing was another process like combing and carding. If wool was too short for combing, it could be bowed. The bow was a specialised instrument, with a cord stretched between two points. The cord was placed in the wool and the wooden frame was struck to make the cord vibrate. The wool became fluffy and could be spun or felted. This method wasn’t used very much after the thirteenth century in England.

I’ve written about spinning before. Although wool could be dyed earlier in the process, it was usually dyed after it had been spun. This was often so that the whole batch of thread that was going to be used for a particular project could be dyed to a uniform colour, not that that was always important.

Once the wool was spun it was ready to be used, but there were still many processes that it underwent before it before someone had the fabric in their hands in order to make a piece of clothing. We’ll look at some of those next week.

Sources:

Textiles and Clothing 1150 – 1450 by Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard, Kay Staniland

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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January Pottage

20190125_125358

The ingredients for this month’s pottage were easy enough to choose. The only vegetables growing in my garden at the moment are leeks. They’re not very big, which I think is due to the very hot summer we had. In my cupboard I had some barley and there’s some sage and bewildered parsley in the garden. The early part of winter was so mild that the parsley thought it was spring and has been growing everywhere. The sorrel has also been fooled into producing leaves early. These things aren’t usually available in January, but I thought a fourteenth-century housewife wouldn’t waste them, so they went into the pot.

When I went to the cupboard the evening before I was going to make the pottage I realised that I didn’t have much barley. Fortunately I still had some marrowfat peas. I soaked the peas overnight and boiled them for three quarters of an hour before I added the barley and the garlic. The peas gave it a bit more taste. About twenty minutes after the barley I added the leeks and the leaves. They boiled together for about fifteen minutes.

It was tasty and satisfying meal. I made the pottage fairly thick, as the liquid can often be disappointing.

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Medieval Wool

lamb

I’m a knitter and I like wool. Knitting wasn’t a big thing in the fourteenth century, but wool was.  Some knitted fabrics from the fourteenth century have survived, but wool was usually woven into fabric or felted. I’m interested in medieval textiles and have a Pinterest board devoted to them.

All over Europe, people used woollen fabrics for clothing and bedding, and the best wool came from England. Flanders and northern Italy were the main weaving centres. importing wool from England and exporting woollen cloth back across the Channel.

It’s been estimated that there were at least nine million sheep in England in the first few decades of the century. The vast majority of them were providing wool for export. Some of the great monasteries had huge flocks, but it was worth keeping even a small flock in order to benefit from the wool trade. Early in the century some monastic flocks could contain 15,000 sheep and there are records of many individual manors with 600 sheep or more. 100 to 300 was probably the more usual size. After the Black Death more land was available for sheep and the size of flocks expanded. It wasn’t unknown for a flock to number 30,000 sheep.

Sheep were very susceptible to the various murrains of the Middle Ages and the sizes of flocks fluctuated according to the prevalence of disease. Some large estates lost two-thirds of their flocks in one year during a particularly bad time.

The quality of wool varied and this was reflected in the prices paid for it. Fleeces from Shropshire, Herefordshire and Lincolnshire were usually considered the best quality, while those from East Anglia, Devon and Cornwall were the worst.

The fleece was the most expensive item in making cloth. Labour was cheap, and turning a fleece into fabric was labour-intensive, as were most tasks in the fourteenth century. Wool had to willowed, washed, dyed, blended, combed, carded, bowed, spun, warped, sized, woven, fulled, stretched, teasled, shorn and calendered.

Wool could only be exported through certain towns. One of them was London and about half the wool exported went through it. Another third went from Boston and Hull. The rest went via Southampton and Lynn. Piracy at sea was always a problem, particularly after the beginning of the Hundred Years War.

Customs duties had to be paid on wool. It was probably the most consistent tax of the fourteenth century. Edward III was a great soldier, but a poor economist. He tried to raise funds for his war against the king of France by dabbling in the wool trade, but failed miserably. For twenty years the wool trade was destabilised. By the late 1350s he had given up, but it took time for it to recover.

From 1363 all wool exports had to go through Calais. This was partly to make the English town there viable. Edward III had captured it after a year-long siege in 1347, but it was costing more than it was worth to keep it.

By the 1370s raw wool exports were beginning to fall, but by then England was exporting processed wool in the form of cloth.

 

Sources:

England in the Reign of Edward III by Scott L. Waugh

Textiles and Clothing 1150 – 1450 by Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard, Kay Staniland

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

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The Medieval Bailiff

Battage_à_Fléau

Whilst I was finding out about stewards last week, I was also reading about bailiffs.  The bailiff was the senior person living on the manor if the lord was absent.

Whereas the position of steward was one of honour, demonstrating the regard in which a man was held by his lord, that of bailiff was much lowlier. He was likely to be a younger son of the gentry or the member of a better-off peasant family and was appointed on the steward’s recommendation. That means that somehow or other he had to have come to the attention of the steward. In the worst cases this might be through bribery,  but you can also imagine pushy parents putting their sons in the way of local stewards, or stewards appointing their own illegitimate sons. Often, of course, the steward would simply come across a young man who impressed him.

The bailiff was an employee of the lord of the manor and he collected the rents, so reading and writing were necessary skills. As the lord’s permanent representative on the manor, he didn’t just represent the lord to its inhabitants, but also to strangers and visitors. When the lord was absent, the bailiff lived in the manor house. His life would have been fairly comfortable, except that he was usually hated by the tenants and villeins.

In many ways, his duties were the same as those of the reeve, the chief villein on the manor. There were major differences between them, however, not least that the bailiff was paid and the reeve was not. The reeve was compensated in other ways, and occasionally helped himself to compensation, but the bailiff was paid with money.

The bailiff’s first priority was the demesne, the part of the manor that was solely for the support of the lord. It was the bailiff’s job to manage the livestock and the crops, and to make sure that as little as possible was stolen. He was also responsible for buying in from outside things that couldn’t be grown or made on the manor, such as salt, iron, tar, parchment or nails.

The bailiff was supposed to view the whole manor every day so that he could decide when the land was to be manured, and when the threshing, ploughing sowing and harvesting were going to take place. He also had to watch over the shearing of the sheep. The sale of wood and skins from the manor was his responsibility. The money from these would have been an important part of the lord’s income. He decided which of the lord’s livestock should be bought or sold.

The bailiff also had non-agricultural duties. He was chief law officer and business manager for the manor.

Lords were advised not to appoint friends or relatives as their bailiffs, but the mere fact that this advice is recorded indicates that it was a fairly common practice that must have led to many problems.

Sources:

A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams

Life in a Medieval Village by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies

The English Manor by Mark Bailey

Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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The Medieval Steward

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn exterior

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn Exterior

In the novel I’m currently working on there’s a secondary character who’s a steward. I got a little confused about whether he would be called a steward or a seneschal, so I decided to check.

It turned out to be even more confusing than I thought. There were also two different roles with the same title. In the domestic sphere, the steward was the official in charge of the daily running of a castle or house. In the administrative sphere, the steward was responsible for the lord’s estates.

The difficulty of whether it was steward or seneschal was easily solved. A seneschal was a steward of a great estate.

Essentially, the steward was his lord’s deputy. It was his job to defend his lord’s rights and to look after his property.

Legal knowledge was an important qualification, since he had to represent his lord in court. This was not as hard to come by as you might think. Many people were familiar with the law in the fourteenth century, because it was a very litigious time.

If he had many estates under him, the steward was supposed to visit them and liaise with the bailiffs. The bailiff was the lord’s permanent representative on the manor. The steward had to instruct and guide these men. Lords were advised to appoint older men to the position of steward, because they would know a bit about managing others and they would have some experience of life. Lords were also advised to appoint honest men, although that was more difficult. As well as being a very litigious time it was also a fairly corrupt time.

The steward was supposed to audit the manorial accounts, so being good with numbers was also a requirement. He went to each manor two or three times a year and stayed for a day or two. He supervised any large building projects, such as mills or barns. He gave permission (or not) for any larger than usual expenditure.

The steward presided over the manorial court. He was not the judge, as the decisions were made by villagers acting as jurors. His role was to give weight to those decisions.

The stewards of great lords were usually knights. Not all lords of estates were laymen, many of them were abbots. In the latter case, their stewards were usually clerics. An abbey’s steward might be known as the cellarer.

Sources:

A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams

Life in a Medieval Village by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies

The English Manor by Mark Bailey

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Geoffrey Chaucer

Canterbury Tales

It’s a rare thing for me to do a biographical post, but I had a discussion with Toutparmoi, whose excellent blog is The Earl of Southampton’s Cat, about Shakespeare scholars and, by extension, Chaucer scholars, embellishing the life of their subject of study. I said that Chaucer’s life was pretty exciting without the need for embellishment. It was so exciting that I think it’s worth sharing.

Chaucer’s father, John, was a wine merchant based in London, and Geoffrey was born there in about 1340, which means, amongst other things, that he lived through the Black Death. From 1347 to 1349 John Chaucer was the king’s deputy butler in Southampton, supervising wine shipments from Bordeaux to the king’s cellars. I like to think that Chaucer spent some time with his father in Southampton and knew the wine merchant’s house I use as the representation of this blog.

In 1357 Chaucer is recorded as being a page in the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster. Elizabeth was the wife of Lionel, the third son of Edward III. Born in 1338, Lionel wasn’t much older than his wife’s servant. Two years later, in 1359, Chaucer was serving in Lionel’s retinue in France. It had been Edward III’s plan to have himself crowned King of France at Rheims cathedral, but his armies were weakened by bad weather and poor supply line, and they were unable to continue the siege. Chaucer went on a foraging raid and was captured by the French. Fortunately, he was of some value and was ransomed for £16.

He married Philippa de Roet in 1365 or 1366. She was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III, but her main claim to fame is that her younger sister was Katherine Swynford, mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt, Edward’s fourth son.

Chaucer was in Navarre in 1366. He might have been on a pilgrimage to Santiago, or on a diplomatic mission. He was recorded as being a king’s esquire in 1367, so he could have been doing something for him. In the same year his son, Thomas, was born.

In April 1368, Lionel, now a widower, travelled to Italy to marry Violante Visconti, daughter of the Lord of Milan. Chaucer was one of his esquires. In Milan he would have seen Sir John Hawkwood, the renowned English mercenary, who served the Lord of Milan. Chaucer would have been below his notice, however, even though he was well-known for writing many songs, mostly bawdy, about love. These were sung widely in England. This wasn’t the last time Chaucer was to visit Italy, and Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio were his greatest influences.

By the end of 1368, Lionel, still celebrating his marriage, was dead. It was said by some that he was killed on the orders of his father-in-law. Chaucer was able to move into the household of Lionel’s younger brother, John of Gaunt.

On 12 September 1368 Blanche, John of Gaunt’s wife, died of the plague, inspiring Chaucer’s first major work: The Book of the Duchess.

By 1369 the war with France was picking up again and Chaucer went there in John of Gaunt’s retinue. Chaucer was in France again the following year, although it’s not clear what he was doing.

By 1371 he was an esquire of the king’s chamber, Edward III’s inner household, and he was sent back to Italy in December 1372. He visited Genoa as part of a diplomatic and trading mission sent to negotiate with the Doge of Venice and to hire Genoese mercenaries for the war in France. There was another, secret, mission for the king in Florence. Chaucer carried this mission out alone and returned to England in May 1373.

On 23 April 1374 Edward III granted him a pitcher of wine a day for life. 23rd April is St. George’s Day and it was Edward III who adopted him as his own saint, leading to him becoming the patron saint of England. A few days later Chaucer was given a rent-free dwelling above the gate at Aldgate. Of the two, I suspect he appreciated the latter more. In June of that year he was appointed Comptroller of the Customs of Hides, Skins and Wools in the port of London. This would have been a lucrative position, since wool was England’s main export. I don’t know what Chaucer did to warrant all this preferment, but I like to think that it was a reward for concluding the king’s business successfully in Florence the year before.

Despite his new post, he was frequently in France in 1376 and 1377. On one of these visits he was a member of a diplomatic mission to negotiate a marriage between Richard of Bordeaux, Edward III’s grandson and heir, and Marie, daughter of the King of France.

In May 1378 he was negotiating for a different bride for Richard, now King of England, in Milan.  This time it was Caterina Visconti, the daughter of the Lord of Milan (not the same lord of Milan who had been Lionel’s father-in-law). Chaucer had another secret mission. He arrived in Milan in late June and stayed at least 6 weeks. He met John Hawkwood, this time as a valued representative of the king. It’s possible he read Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato on which Troilus and Criseyde is based while he was in Milan.

Another son, Lewis, was born in 1380. It was around this time that Chaucer wrote Parliament of Fowls, about birds choosing their mates. He also wrote Palamon and Aricite, which is the tale later told by the knight in The Canterbury Tales. Between 1381 and 1386 he wrote Troilus and Criseyde.

In the 1380s he had to get permission to appoint deputies to carry out his customs duties, presumably because he was so busy with his writing. By now he was also a member of Richard II’s household.

Philippa Chaucer died in 1387. About the same time Chaucer started work on The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer’s advancement in the civil service continued and on 12 July 1389 he was appointed Clerk of the King’s Works. This wasn’t an altogether happy experience, however. In September 1390 highwaymen stole his horse and the king’s money that he was carrying. He was robbed twice more before the end of the year. The following June he resigned from his position.

In 1391 he wrote A Treatise on the Astrolabe for his son, Lewis.

Information is sparse after this point.  On 24 Dec 1399, three months after the coronation of John of Gaunt’s son, Henry IV, Chaucer took a 53-year lease on a house in the precincts of Westminster Abbey. There’s no contemporary record of his death, but the date usually given for it is 25th October 1400.

I think you’ll agree that Chaucer’s life was pretty exciting. If we knew about his secret missions, it might be even more exciting.

 

Sources:

The Canterbury Tales edited by Jill Mann

Chronicles by Froissart

Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders

Richard II by Nigel Saul

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Christmas Pottage

Christmas Pottage

Christmas was a feast, so I doubt that pottage would necessarily have been part of the main meal, but this is a series about pottage and that’s what I made. Many people celebrated the feast in the hall of the lord of the manor and that probably means that they ate the lord’s meat.

I’m a vegetarian, so meat isn’t an option for me, but I wanted this month’s pottage to be a bit of a celebration. Since whatever the people sitting in their lord’s hall ate was probably made with meat stock, I allowed myself vegetable stock in my pottage.

Sonya from Losing the Plot sent me some soup mix from Northern Ireland which is rather pottage-like in its makeup. It contains pearl barley, red split lentils, green split peas and yellow split peas. Medieval Gardens tells me that lentils weren’t commonly available in the Middle Ages and I thought that would make them something suitable for the Christmas feast.

I soaked the dry ingredients overnight, rinsed them and boiled them for 10 minutes. After that they simmered for 40 minutes. I rinsed them again and added them to some vegetable stock together with some leeks from the garden and some carrots. That cooked for another ten minutes.  It was very tasty and had the advantage over some previous pottages of looking nice in the bowl.

For poorer people who didn’t get to eat at their lord’s table, ham probably featured in their more humble Christmas feast. It’s a tradition that continued at least into my childhood. One of the smells I associate with Christmas is a ham boiling in the pressure cooker on Christmas Eve.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Fasting With Fish

Cupboard decoration

Last week I mentioned fasting during Advent and said that it wasn’t necessarily a deprivation.  I’m reading The Road to Crécy at the moment and this week I came across the list of what Edward III ate on the day he landed in Normandy in July 1346.

On Wednesday 12th July the king and his household sat down to 93 cod, 16 salted salmon, 24 stockfish (dried cod), 11 conger eels and 4 lampreys (from the Kitchen Accounts quoted in The Road to Crécy). They also ate some geese and hens, since poultry was permitted on Wednesdays. The fish were served with sauces of garlic and mustard.

Two days later, on Friday 14th July, the king’s household ate 38 cod, 16 stockfish, 8 salted salmon, 100 quarters (a weight) of pimpernels (small eels),  200 lampreys and 7 ‘shaft’ eels. I’m afraid I don’t know exactly what type of eel these are. Again, they were served with sauces and peas. On Fridays the rules for fasting were stricter and no meat at all was allowed.

In addidtion to the ones listed above, the types of fish that were available from the sea were plaice, bream, sole, haddock, turbot, halibut, sea bass, mullet, sturgeon and mackerel. Crabs and lobster were also considered fish, as were whelks, oysters, mussels and shrimps. Slightly more surprisingly so were seals, whales and porpoises. River and lake fish included trout, pike, grayling, bream and tench.

Given that England has a lot of coastline and many rivers, to say nothing of fishponds at monasteries and some large manors, you would think that there would be plenty of variety for people, even if they did have to fast for about half the days in the year. This was not the case. The definition of a fish – something created at sea or in water – could include many different creatures. Barnacle geese and puffins counted as fish, as did beavers, because they had tails like fish.

Although salting fish was a way of making it available to people who lived more than a day’s journey from the coast, fish could also be transported live in barrels of water for those who had the money to pay for it.

Sources:

The Road to Crécy by Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Food and Cooking in Medieval Britain by Maggie Black

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Advent Leads to Christmas

Medieval Dancers

Advent marks the beginning of the church year and is still considered a time of preparation for Christmas and for the second coming of Christ.  Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Usually this is the last Sunday in November, but it can, as in this year, fall on the first Sunday in December.

In the fourteenth century, Advent was a time of fasting. This meant that no animal meat was eaten. For most people little changed, but the wealthy replaced meat with fish. The fish would be accompanied with rich sauces, just as their meat was, so there was little sense of deprivation for most of them.

For a mostly rural society, midwinter was a very quiet time.  The ground was resting. Having been ploughed and sown during autumn, it would be ploughed and sown again in spring. There was very little that could be done outside, given that there were so few hours of daylight each day. I’m in the south of England, where there’s a bit more daylight than in places further north during winter, but it is still dark at 7.30 in the morning at the moment and growing dark again at 3.30 in the afternoon. On wet days like today we have to have the lights on at midday if we want to see what we’re doing. It’s not a good time of year for doing things outside and it would have meant burning expensive candles to do anything too complicated indoors. Advent itself must have been pretty miserable for everyone in the fourteenth century.

Christmas, on the other hand, must have been fun. Today Christmas seems to begin in September, but in the fourteenth century it didn’t begin until Christmas Day itself.  It went on for twelve days until the feast of the Epiphany on 6th January.

Christmas was celebrated as a feast and most people shared a communal meal in the hall of the lord of the manor’s house. They might not have eaten exactly what the lord was eating, but it would have been better than what they would have eaten in their own house. For those who could afford it, the main Christmas meal was swan, goose, beef, ham or bacon.

There would, of course, be dancing and singing. I had a conversation with another blogger about Christmas carols this week and was dismayed to discover that many of the carols I had always considered to be medieval really date from Tudor times or later. There were carols, however, most of them in Latin.

Then as now, games were very popular in celebrating Christmas. People at all levels of society enjoyed disguising themselves as part of a game. This was known as mumming. Edward III was very fond of this and often ordered masks, cloaks and tunics for the court to play mumming games. For Christmas 1347, after his successful campaign in Normandy which led to the fall of Calais, he ordered fourteen masks with women’s faces, fourteen with the faces of bearded men, fourteen with the silver faces of angels, fourteen painted cloaks, fourteen dragons’ heads, fourteen pheasant heads, fourteen pairs of wings for these heads, fourteen tunics painted with the eyes of pheasants’ wings, fourteen swans’ heads, fourteen pairs of wings for the swans, fourteen painted linen tunics, and fourteen tunics painted with stars.

In great households roles could be reversed at Christmas, with those at the top of the social ladder doing menial chores and servants taking the part of the lord or one of the senior members of the household. It was a reminder to all that the Wheel of Fortune could turn at any moment and they could swap roles in reality.

Christmas was a popular time for jousts. I’m not sure why, since it must have been very cold for those watching.

Sources:

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

A Social History of England, 1200 to 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life, The Medieval Church