Medieval Bills of Exchange

Last week there was a question in the comments from Ellen Hawley who wanted to know how the innkeepers who stored and organised the transport of goods on behalf of merchants were paid by those merchants. I touched on this subject a bit when we were looking at how ransoms for prisoners of war were paid, but there is more to be said on the subject.

Banking in the fourteenth century was fairly sophisticated, even if two Florentine banks had gone bust lending money to Edward I and Edward III. Italian banks and Italian merchants were the most advanced in their business dealings, but we have to go back to the Templars in twelfth-century France to understand where the idea of how to make payments over large distances and in different currencies without physically moving lots of money arose.

Moving large amounts of coins was rarely a good idea in the Middle Ages. It was incredibly difficult to protect a train of slow-moving pack animals or carts from robbers and bandits. Even small amounts of money were vulnerable, as Chaucer discovered when he was robbed on three separate occasions when he was carrying money to pay men working for Richard II. This is not to say that real money and jewels weren’t transported around Europe and the East because they were. In 1328 a large amount of money was sent from the papal court in Avignon to Lombardy to pay the army there. There was a guard of 150 cavalry, but they were attacked and half the money was stolen and some of the cavalry were captured by the bandits and had to be ransomed.

Since it was so risky, another way had to be found to make payments across large distances. Somewhat surprisingly, we have to go back to the Templars and the Crusades. Although the Templars were active in protecting pilgrims and fighting in the Crusades in the holy Land, in England, France and Italy one of their primary functions was providing secure storage for important documents and precious objects. Although monasteries in general were fairly secure, the Templars were soldiers as well as monks. If I had to give my precious objects to someone, I think I’d prefer them to be in the care of men who were able to fight to protect them, rather than simply rely on the strength of monastery walls and doors.

The Crusades, however, meant that wealthy men needed to be able to access some of their money while they were in the East.  Not only did they have to feed the soldiers in their retinue, but they also had to replace lost or damaged equipment and horses. They also had to live in a certain style.

Fortunately, the Templars could help them. The Templars had preceptories all over Europe and in the East. A preceptory was a headquarters. Temple in London is where the English one was located and Le Temple is where the French equivalent was built in Paris. These were built like fortresses and were very secure. Wealthy men could deposit money in one of them and receive a letter of credit allowing him to receive the same amount in the local currency (less administration charges and interest) at any preceptory in Europe or in the Holy Land. This meant, of course, that the Templars made a profit on the transactions.

The records kept by the Templars were very thorough and everyone trusted them, with good reason. They even had a treasure ship off the coast of the Holy Land from which kings and nobles could make emergency withdrawals whilst on campaign. They were also able to make loans.

Since men from across Europe were involved in the Crusades, it’s not a surprise that the Templars became involved in the activities of Italian merchants and bankers who were interested in trade across Europe and in the East.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, however, the Templar’s great wealth proved too tempting and Philippe IV of France destroyed the order in that country. The Florentine bankers had learned what they needed to do to fill the gap and came up with bills of exchange.

Bills of exchange allowed a person in one country to pay someone in a different country and in a different currency. They were also a form of loan on which interest was charged. Since charging interest was illegal, it was usually hidden in the administration fees, commission and exchange rates. Money didn’t have to be transferred just between branches of the same bank, but could also be transferred between different banks. The banks were not banks as we know them today. As far as I can discover, the only banks were Italian, but they operated all over Europe.

Bills of exchange weren’t always practicable. Sometimes the rate of exchange in one place made it too costly to buy a bill of exchange and silver, gold or precious stones had to be transported from one place to the other, because, despite the cost and risks involved, it was the cheaper option.

Bills of exchange weren’t just used by merchants, but also by people on business for the papal court. Men in the service of the kings also used them. Bills of exchange could only be used between locations that had more or less equal amounts of money in the branches of the bank. If the difference between them was too great, coins would have to be transported from one place to the other.

It wasn’t a perfect system, but it allowed innkeepers in France to be paid in their local currency by a merchant in England.

Sources:
The Templars: History and Myth
by Michael Haag
Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford

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

Amazon

11 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Commerce, Medieval Monks, Thirteenth Century, Twelfth Century

Medieval Innkeepers

The Wool House, Southampton

Some time ago I started an intermittent series about trades and occupations in the Middle Ages. I reallised that it has been several months since I added anything, so it’s probably about time we looked at another one. Innkeepers managed establishments whose purpose was to provide accommodation, food and drink to the people and animals who stayed in them. People in the Middle Ages travelled much more than we tend to think. Pilgrims, merchants, clerics and messengers were all on the roads, but so were men who transported goods from place to place and people who just had business in another town. They all needed somewhere to stay and they all hoped that they would stay in an inn run by a reputable man. As we shall see, innkeepers were not all made from the same cloth. Some were little better than criminals and others were entrusted with important commissions.

The best-known medieval innkeeper is probably Harry Bailly, the man from whose inn the pilgrims set off at the beginning of The Canterbury Tales. He’s a cheerful man who strives to keep the peace between the pilgrims and tries to manage the story-telling contest that gives rise to the various stories.

Not all innkeepers were as respectable as him, however. Some inns were not places where the Wife of Bath or the Prioress would want to find themselves. These were inns in which illegal gambling took place and a man who lost could find himself literally losing the shirt off his back, as well as all his other possessions if he lost beyond his ability to pay.

Inns themselves varied tremendously and could be large stone buildings built for the purpose with accommodation on an upper floor and stabling in the yard or a small room added to a tavern. We’re not really interested in taverns for this post, but we might come back to them later.

Inns were everywhere. They were in towns to provide accommodation for those who attended the markets and near pilgrimage sites to provide accommodation for pilgrims. They were also in places that people might travel to in order to petition the king or important and powerful clerics.

Accommodation was important to travellers. If there was no space for them in an inn or a monastery, they had to sleep outside the town, which might not be safe or particularly comfortable. Not that sleeping in an inn was always comfortable. Some inns had two rooms, one for men and one for women, but travellers generally shared one room with the innkeeper and his family.

As well as in towns there were also inns along all the trade routes and it’s the owners of some of these establishments who were at the top of the innkeeping trade. These innkeepers stored goods that came in bulk from one direction and were broken up into smaller quantities to be sent on in the other. They acted as agents of the merchants who owned the goods. Innkeepers organised the onward transport of goods where the method of transport changed. Goods might arrive by river and go on by road, either in carts or on pack animals and it was often innkeepers who took responsibility for this.

It wasn’t always possible for merchants to accompany their goods all the way from the place of production to the final market, possibly a thousand or more miles away, especially if the route passed through several countries and required different modes of transport. They were unlikely to have all the contacts necessary. They could, however, have a relationship with three or four reliable innkeepers wherever the method of transport changed. If, for example, an English merchant was sending goods to Italy, he might send an employee with them by sea to Bordeaux and on as far inland as the ship could sail. This would be Libourne on the Dordogne. Once there the cargo would be put into the care of an innkeeper and the employee would return to England with the ship and a different cargo.

The innkeeper, meanwhile, would weigh the goods, usually packed in bulk at this point. Then he would break the cargo down so that it could be transported overland by cart or pack animal. He stored it until he had arranged for a carrier to take it on the next stage of its journey, in this instance Montpellier in the south of France. He paid the carrier for the journey and his job was done.

The carrier delivered it to another innkeeper in Montpellier who took it in, weighed it and paid another carrier to take it to Aigues Mortes in Provence. From Aigues Mortes it went by galley to Porto Pisano in Tuscany. The innkeeper in Aigues Mortes paid for men and small boats to take the goods to the galley and that’s where his responsibility ended.

The English merchant only had to pay the innkeepers and he needed no local knowledge to transport his goods across four different countries with three or four different languages. He didn’t even have to think about how to prepare his goods for the different types of transport.

Innkeepers were prepared to store goods for some time, especially those in ports who had to wait for ships to arrive that were going in the right direction. Even inland innkeepers, however, might have to wait until a carrier with enough animals or carts turned up. They also had to pay tolls and deal with officials who would weigh the goods and tax them.

In order to operate as warehouses, inns needed to be large, like the warehouse at the top of the post, and secure. This, along with the necessity of paying carriers up front, meant that innkeepers had to be wealthy men. These were probably not men like Chaucer’s innkeeper, but men who had already made money elsewhere. Some of them were priests and lawyers, some were even nobles. However rich they were to start with, providing this kind of service made them much richer.

Sources:
A Social History of England ed. by Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford

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

Amazon

11 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Commerce, Medieval Life

Medieval Ransoms Part 4

I wrote in last week’s post that some prisoners of war were able to keep servants and horses. Not surprisingly the prisoner would pay for this. Other things for which he had to pay are a bit more unexpected.

The first thing he had to pay for was his accommodation: his food and his lodgings. In effect, he was paying for his own prison. The cost of this varied according to the status of the prisoner. In the fifteenth century this could be 20 shillings a day for a nobleman. You will recall that our skilled labourer from the fourteenth century earned 4d (pennies) a day. There were 12d to a shilling, so that would be 60 days of labour for one day’s accommodation. More usually, for much lower status prisoners, the fee was 4 or 5 shillings a week. Still out of reach for our labourer, but men of his class weren’t taken prisoner; they were killed.

This wasn’t the last of it. If the captor decided to take his prisoner with him as he travelled between his manors or for other reasons, the prisoner had to pay for his horse (plus its feed and accommodation). If he needed an escort, which he might if he were a high status noble, he had to pay for that too. Often a safe-conduct was required to allow him to travel within what was enemy territory. Guess who had to pay for that? This could cost the prisoner between 9 shillings and 26 shillings.

He even had to pay for the messenger to go to his friends and family to tell them about the ransom and make arrangements for it to be paid. This might not be a minor expense if the messenger had to travel some distance or search for the person he’d been sent to. There’s an example of a messenger who worked in this way for a noble for most of a year. This cost the noble £140.

These were the expenses a prisoner could count on if all went well. If there were any problems, there would be more. If a prisoner had been injured when he was captured, for example or he became ill later, there were medical expenses to be paid.

All these costs were added at the end of the prisoner’s captivity, so they often came as a bit of a shock. There were even court cases in which prisoners claimed that the size of the additional expenses were unfair.

It’s beginning to look as if my protagonist’s ransom will be the least of his worries. He’s got to send a messenger to his brother who is a journey of at least two weeks away. I happen to know that the brother isn’t where he’s supposed to be, so the messenger can easily be away for two months and more looking for him. That could cost Geoffrey £28 for the messenger and £2 for his accommodation. Instead of his ransom being £175, it’s now £205 and he no longer knows how it’s going to be paid.

Sources:
Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War by Rémy Ambühl

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

Amazon

7 Comments

Filed under Hundred Years War, Medieval Life

Medieval Ransoms Part 3

This post is less about ransoms as such than the conditions under which medieval prisoners of war were kept whilst waiting for their ransoms to be paid. Fragglerocking asked last week if they were kept in prisons. Sometimes they were, but mostly they weren’t. This could have something to do with the status of the prisoner, or with the ability of the captor to pay for secure accommodation.

During the fourteenth century, there really weren’t that many places to keep prisoners. Criminals were usually kept in town gates whilst awaiting trial. There were always guards there to check on people coming in and going out of the town who might have to pay a toll, so they could also keep an eye on the prisoners. As you can see from the photograph of Southampton’s town gate above, though, there wasn’t room to keep many prisoners. It didn’t fit well with the chivalric code, either, to treat men who had been captured in a battle like common criminals. Then there was the problem of status. You might want to keep a man who was a servant or a minor knight in a place like this, but you wouldn’t want to keep a knight from whom you were hoping to receive a large ransom here. Some men did, though, in the hope of extracting an even larger ransom from them. Generally speaking, though, the higher status a prisoner had, the better his accommodation.

Town gates weren’t the only places with prisons; some castles also had them, like this one at Portchester Castle.

The Prison, Portchester Castle

As you can see, it’s little more than a pit. Sadly none of the children in the castle that day got down there to give you an idea of scale, but it’s small. It’s probably about six feet wide by eight or ten feet long, which would be reasonably comfortable for one man, but there might be more than one prisoner to be kept. The pit is certainly secure (although prisoners managed to escape from both town gates and castles, mainly because they weren’t kept in good repair or because they bribed their keepers), but it’s not somewhere you’d want to keep an honoured prisoner, especially if there was the possibility that you might be his prisoner in a few years.

Unless you were the holder of the castle, accommodating your prisoner there or in the town gate was expensive, especially if their captivity was lengthy. We looked at some of the reasons why it could take a while for a ransom to be paid last week.

Captured knights were often left in the hands of other people in prisons like these, but many were kept in their captors’ own homes. Not only were landholders very mobile, moving frequently between their properties, but fighting was probably continuing elsewhere. Someone might be prepared to take one or more prisoner with him from place to place, but he wouldn’t want to take them somewhere where they could provide assistance to their own side, either by escaping or by acting as spies.

Some knights were allowed quite a bit of freedom within the bounds of their captivity. They were allowed to move freely within the building where they were kept and some were allowed to walk around outside, with a guard, of course. Some were even allowed their own servants and horses. At least one man was allowed to have his wife with him.

I don’t know yet how my protagonist, Geoffrey, will spend his captivity. It will, I think, suit his personality to spend his first weeks in the castle in close confinement, but that won’t help at all with building the relationship that will be at the centre of the novel.

Sources:
Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War by Rémy Ambühl

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

Amazon

9 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Buildings, Medieval Warfare

Medieval Ransoms Part 2

The French attempt to recapture Calais

I wrote in last week’s post that the male protagonist in a novel that I’m plotting at the moment has valued his ransom at £175. Being English, Geoffrey and his brother have calculated their worth in pounds sterling, but they’re in France and ransoms there would be paid in French gold coins. Geoffrey’s captor would make his calculation in livres tournois, the currency used in France. The coins were made of gold, silver or a silver-copper alloy, depending on the value of the coin.

The silver coins were the most important for most people, as they were used to pay taxes, wages and rents. The silver-copper alloy coins were used for everyday expenses, such as shopping. Ransoms, though, were usually paid in gold.

One livre tournois was worth much less than one pound sterling. There were six livres tournois to one pound sterling, so Geoffrey’s ransom as he has calculated it would be 1,050 livres tournois.

Then as now, however, the exchange rate wasn’t the only element of the transaction.

Once Geoffrey’s ransom is agreed with his captor, he has a problem. Although he has enough wealth to pay the ransom he has calculated, he doesn’t have enough gold. There might be some gold coins in the booty he’s taken, but most of the coins will be silver. The rest of his booty might be valuable (or not so valuable) objects that he has taken in raids and he might be able to persuade his captor to take some of these in lieu of coins. If he’s unlucky, his captor will expect him to hand over 1,050 gold coins.

Geoffrey’s next problem is that there aren’t that many gold coins in circulation. Most people have never even seen a gold coin, let alone owned one, so he has to find someone who has gold coins … lots of them. There’s a chance that some of his friends or relatives will sell him gold coins, especially if they’ve managed to get ransoms from the French prisoners they captured during the battle, but they’re unlikely to have all that he needs. Florentine bankers are a good source of gold coins, but they will charge him a fee to change the coins and it won’t be a small one. He will need to sell some of his possessions and get in touch with a representative of a Florentine bank.

Once Geoffrey has sold anything that he needs to sell to ensure that he has the necessary coins, something that might take some time, he now has to get them to Florence and the bank in Florence has to get the gold coins to him. In theory. In practice it was far too dangerous to transport large sums of money that far. Fortunately, banking in the fourteenth century was far more sophisticated than that and bills of exchange were often used instead of physical money.

I’ve written about Geoffrey having coins and precious objects, but, of course, he doesn’t have them with him. They are, he hopes, safely in Bordeaux with his brother. Whilst some captors would allow their prisoners to leave their captivity in order to raise their ransoms, there’s a risk that some of them will simply go home as soon as they’re released. Geoffrey, though, doesn’t need to leave the castle where he’s being held. All he needs to do, is to send a messenger to his brother, who shouldn’t be too far away.

Geoffrey assumes that his brother has also survived the battle and has returned with the English army to Bordeaux, so we will too. The brother is the one who will contact their family and friends to try and exchange silver coins for gold coins. He will also sell anything he needs to get more silver coins. Eventually he will deposit the coins with a representative of the bank he or Geoffrey has chosen in Bordeaux and the banker will send a bill of exchange to a representative near to where Geoffrey is being held. This representative will then pay the gold coins to Geoffrey’s captor, assuming that they have sufficient gold coins in that part of France. As it was for so many, it’s beginning to look as if Geoffrey’s captivity will be a lengthy one.

Sources:
Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War by Rémy Ambühl

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

Amazon

10 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Commerce, Medieval Life

Ransoms in the Hundred Years War

This week I’ve been working on the plot of a novel in which the male protagonist is one of the few English knights taken prisoner at the battle of Poitiers. I reached the part of the story where he and his captor are negotiating his ransom and thought that it would be interesting to work out what a prisoner like him would have been worth.

Geoffrey, his name at the moment, is the second son of the second son of an earl. With his older brother, he serves in the retinue of his cousin, who is the current earl. He has taken some booty whilst on chevauchée with the Black Prince, so he’s not entirely without financial resources. He and his brother have decided what they think they’re each worth if either of them has to pay a ransom for the other and they have the funds to cover this.

Calculating a ransom could be a complicated business and fortunes could be made and lost, depending on the prisoner’s ability to pay. There could also be arguments about who had taken someone prisoner. Legal cases could go on for years to sort this kind of thing out, even for prisoners who weren’t really worth very much, but the man who has captured Geoffrey has taken his sword, so there can be no questions later.

In addition to a ransom, the prisoner, or his friends or family, had to pay for his accommodation and food. It was, therefore, in his best interests, to ensure that the ransom was paid as quickly as possible. Costs could mount up quickly over the months and years (possibly) that a man was held while he was raising the money to pay his ransom. The figures that I have, from Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War, relate to ransoms demanded by the English for their French prisoners, since there were many more of these after the battle of Poitiers. This is the kind of information that would have guided Geoffrey and his brother when they decided how much they might have to pay for their freedom if they were captured.

The first category of prisoner is rather shocking, as it covers earls, counts and bishops. I suppose a king might take a bishop to war with him and I know that a bishop did lead an army against the Scots when they raided the north of England while Edward III was in France, but it’s still a bit of a surprise that bishops were taken prisoner and ransomed. They were not supposed to fight and non-combatants weren’t supposed to be captured. Men of this rank were worth between £2,000 and £8,000. This is an eye-wateringly large amount. As always, I’ll remind you that a skilled labourer earned about 4d a day. For those of you not familiar with the workings of pounds, shillings and pence that’s 120,000 days of labour for the lower ransom. If our skilled labourer worked every single day, it would take him 330 years to earn that amount. Fortunately, earls, counts and bishops were usually fabulously wealthy. Even so, a ransom of this size would put a serious dent in that wealth.

Men in the next category, barons, could expect to pay a much lower ransom. They were worth £500, or 30,000 days of labour. Knights and esquires were worth between £50 and £500. Other high-status servants were valued at £50 or less. Eight years of labour.

In 1360 a ransom of £16 was paid for Geoffrey Chaucer, who was captured by the French while he was out foraging. This was still 960 days worth of labour and clearly impossible for even an important and trusted servant like Chaucer to raise. Four years earlier he had been a page and it’s unlikely that his position in Lionel of Antwerp’s retinue was much more than that. Fortunately for him, the ransom was paid by the king, which makes me wonder whether Chaucer really was foraging or doing something entirely different on the king’s behalf.

Although he has no land, my Geoffrey has rich relatives and a name that his captor recognises, so he can expect his ransom to be more than that for other knights of similar wealth. His only hope for a quick release is that his captor won’t be too greedy, because Geoffrey knows that there’s no hope of any help from his cousin. I think he might have valued himself at about £175.

Sources:
Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War by Rémy Ambühl
The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall

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

Amazon

13 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Warfare

Mercenary versus Condottiero

John Hawkwood

It’s not often that I go into my local and the barman greets me with “what’s the difference between a mercenary and a condottiero?”, but since Greg asked, I thought about it and said that I thought a mercenary was someone who sold himself to the highest bidder, but a condottiero was someone who was part of a group that sold itself to the highest bidder in Italy. Then I thought about it a bit more. We bandied some names about. I mentioned John Hawkwood, the famous fourteenth-century mercenary who is celebrated by a painting in Florence Cathedral. He mentioned Richard I’s head mercenary and right hand man, Mercadier, who is said to have avenged the king’s death by murdering the man who had killed him, before being assassinated in turn by a mercenary employed by King John.

As it turns out, my initial answer was incorrect. According to Treccani.it, the great Italian online dictionary and encyclopaedia, a condottiero was the leader of a group of mercenaries. John Hawkwood was, therefore, both a mercenary and a condottiero.

Mercenaries have a bad reputation today and it wasn’t much better in the fourteenth century, at least among the people they terrorised for money. Among knights, however, it was different. Being a mercenary was a perfectly respectable way to make a living. What else was a knight supposed to do when he wasn’t required by his king? Geoffroi de Charny, who wrote the book on chivalry, said that it was a good way for a knight to gain experience.

Most knights didn’t come from a noble background and didn’t have a large sum of money to fall back on during the very long periods when wars weren’t being fought. Although the name the Hundred Years War implies that war was being waged continuously, it wasn’t. There were treaties that meant that there was a peace of sorts for several years at a time and there were other times when Edward III simply couldn’t afford to take an army to France. A professional knight had no other skills than fighting. He had trained hard to become a knight and he had many expenses once he became one. Apart from his armour and his arms, he had to have horses and he had to have servants who needed to be fed and clothed. A pause in the fighting in France meant that he was no longer being paid, but his expenses continued. Some men banded together to hold local towns to ransom, but others decided to go to Italy where there was very good money to be made.

Italy wasn’t a single state in the fourteenth century: it was many, often small, states based around cities. In the north and centre of Italy those states were almost constantly at war. The large states overpowered the small states, who employed mercenaries to fight back on their behalf. The large states fought one another by proxy, employing mercenaries. Even the papacy employed mercenaries, whilst at the same time deploring their activities. There were fortunes to be made here, even for men who didn’t end up leading their own company of mercenaries.

Italy’s situation was a bit of a vicious circle. The fighting had been going on for some time, making Italy so unsafe that Clement V decided in 1309 that it would be sensible set up the papal court in Avignon. The fact that he was French played no part in this decision, allegedly. Most European armies employed a few mercenaries, so it wasn’t unusual that some English and German mercenaries went to join Italian armies. I’ve been to Italy and fallen in love with it, so I can easily believe that these northern Europeans did the same and encouraged others to join them, until the numbers of mercenaries in Italy became a real problem. They formed themselves into armies called companies and the city states found that they either had to employ them or have them as their enemies.

A mercenary company in Italy was a business. It made contracts with its clients, necessitating the employment of lawyers, usually Italian. It had full-time accountants who were responsible for collecting the fees and dividing them up among the members of the company. The condottiero, of course, received the largest share. The company also employed women to do the washing, cooking and, as my source puts it, provide other services.

Being a condottiero was far from safe, even when they weren’t fighting. Some were assassinated by their own men, who had ambitions to lead the company themselves. Others were assassinated by a former employer they had abandoned when they received a better offer. A few, like John Hawkwood, managed to grow old. He lived into his seventies, having served a single employer, Florence, for several years. Some condottieri even became heads of states: Biordo Michelotti became lord of Perugia, but he was ultimately assassinated.

English mercenaries did rather well in Italy. They had a reputation for being very loud (how little times change) and being able to shout was useful for frightening the opposition, apparently. Loud music was also used. I’m beginning to suspect that my neighbours are descended from mercenaries. English mercenaries also had the useful ability to travel long distances, sometimes overnight, which some of them probably learned whilst on chevauchée with Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince) in the south-west of France in the 1350s. This meant that they could appear somewhere long before they were expected and take the enemy by surprise.

At the end of the fourteenth century there was very little work for English knights in France. The young Richard II preferred peace and his uncle, John of Gaunt, was nowhere near the soldier Richard’s father had been. It wasn’t until the time of John of Gaunt’s grandson, Henry V, that English knights were needed in France again. Most English knights in Italy remained loyal to their king and John Hawkwood even had it written into his contracts that he wouldn’t fight against England’s allies.

Sources:
Knight by Michael Prestwich
Hawkwood by Frances Stonor Saunders

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

Amazon

12 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Warfare

Droit du Seigneur

I don’t usually write about things that didn’t happen on this blog, but this week I listened to an interesting podcast on this subject and thought that it might interest you. The podcast was about the myth that a medieval lord had the legal right to bed any woman on his estate on her wedding night. This is known as the ius primae noctis (the law of the first night) or droit du seigneur (the right of the lord).

It’s a myth perpetrated, apparently, by the film Braveheart, which I’ve never seen. Since the only thing I know about the film (by hearsay) is that William Wallace had an affair with Isabella of France, who was only nine years old when he was executed and didn’t leave France until she was twelve, you’ll probably understand why I’ve never seen it and don’t intend to. You’ll also know that anything portrayed in the film should be taken with a large dose of scepticism. Braveheart isn’t the only recent culprit as far as this myth is concerned, but millions of people have seen it and only slightly fewer have taken it for historical fact.

After I listened to the podcast, I had a look on my bookshelves to see what I could find to contradict or support its argument. I picked out three books as the most likely to have something to say about the droit du seigneur if such a thing had ever existed. They are The English Manor by Mark Bailey, Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages by Conor McCarthy and Unmarriages by Ruth Mazo Karras. This last is the only one to mention it and Karras identifies it as a myth, but without going into any detail.

So how did such a myth come into being? One possibility is that the merchet, a sum of money paid to the lord of the manor when female villeins married, came in later times to be seen as a tax paid in lieu of the droit du seigneur. Hector Boece, a sixteenth-century historian in Scotland included it in his history of that country. Whether or not he believed it is another matter and we’ll see later how people of the Renaissance viewed the Middle Ages.

There are several stories purporting to record what happened when lords took advantage of this right from all over Europe. Most of them can’t be traced back much earlier than the seventeenth century and what they all have in common is that the lords’ actions always resulted in rebellion and, ultimately, their own deaths. If such a legal right had existed, there could have been no rebellion and the stories about rebellion show how unlikely it is that such a right existed.

It’s also difficult to equate such a law with the fact that, in England at least, huge numbers of manors were in the hands of the church. It’s hard to see how such a law could come into being with the consent of the church and it’s impossible to imagine it without the consent of the church. This isn’t to say that some churchmen and secular lords weren’t averse to forcing themselves on women of lower status, as I’m sure there were many occasions on which it occurred. It’s just that there was no legal right for them to do so and it wasn’t the custom anywhere.

In reality it seems that people in the Middle Ages found the idea of droit du seigneur as abhorrent as we do. The stories about it probably originated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries simply as a way of showing how barbaric people had been in the past and how much better life was now. It’s no coincidence that, around the same time, the same stories were told by those who travelled to the New World about the people who lived there. It was a way of emphasising how uncivilised they were and how fortunate it was that Europeans had arrived and could help them to live in a more civilised way. The concept of ius primae noctis seems to serve the same purpose in our times.

Source:

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

Amazon

26 Comments

Filed under Medieval Life

Medieval Dyeing

As a result of two different conversations this week I thought I’d have a look at dyeing. As we’ve seen before, people in fourteenth-century England loved colourful things, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they also liked to wear colourful clothes. Despite this many garments were retained their original colour, for example certain kinds of monks wore undyed habits and some poorer people wore outer garments that were undyed. This meant that their clothes were the colour of the sheep from whom their woollen clothes were made. Dyes were expensive, so some people made do with cheaper colours. The main colours worn by poorer people and people who lived in the countryside were grey, green, dark brown, brown-red and undyed. The wealthy wore bright blues, greens and reds. While I like grey, blues, greens and reds appeal a lot more.

Fabric could be dyed at various stages of the manufacturing process and wool could be died after it was spun or after it was woven. Many dyes were made from plants, some of which grew in England and some of which didn’t. Dyestuffs were imported into England and dyers couldn’t always get supplies regularly. They had to wait for merchants to turn up at fairs with the rarer dyes, which had to travel further than most people at the time could imagine.

Originally dyers were women and they continued to dye any fabric that they made for their own household to use. By the twelfth century, though, dying was almost exclusively a trade for men, since more refined and reliable dyes required a capital outlay that women were unlikely to be able to afford. Dyes were incredibly expensive, since many had to travel a long way to England and were classed as spices by merchants. Dyeing was a specialised trade and a dyer didn’t just have to understand dyes, but also fabrics and mordants (the fixatives). Different fabrics take dyes differently and even different weaves of the same fabric don’t take dye in the same way. I do embroidery (mostly cross stitch) and the difference in colour between a 32 count linen (32 threads to an inch) and a 46 count linen (46 threads to an inch) dyed in the same way came be immense.

Dying required a lot of water and dyers tended to live around sources of running water. The item to be dyed was soaked in hot water and was turned from time to time. Then the dye was added and the item was left to soak for a while. The two most common colours in England were red, made from madder root, and blue, from the woad leaf. Madder was grown in France and the Low Countries.  Woad dyes were cheaper, as the leaves could be picked a few times a year. Woad could also be used before other dyes on a yarn or a fabric, which presumably produced a deeper colour. Much of the woad used in England came from the area around Toulouse, but Lombard woad came into England through Southampton, which was also a main port for alum. Alum was used as a fixative for all colours and was also used to clean wool, so vast quantities were imported into England. It was mined in Asia Minor and most of it reached England via Genoa.

A more expensive form of red was kermes, which came from shield-lice around the Mediterranean. There is a certain amount of irony in people who were probably ridden with lice paying huge sums of money for fabric dyed with the bodies of lice. Female shield-lice were collected in late spring, killed and dried in the sun, before being crushed. It cost almost thirty times as much as madder.

Brazilwood was used for crimson and purple. Somewhat unexpectedly, the plant doesn’t take its name from the country, but the country takes its name from the plant as a tree similar to the one used in Europe for dyes was discovered by the Portuguese in South America.

Black was the most difficult colour to produce and only the rich had clothes that were truly black. It still remains a difficult colour to produce today. If I showed you my black embroidery threads, you would probably say that they’re not as black as they could be and no two manufacturers of embroidery thread produce the same black. It’s also a colour that fades more quickly than others. I can’t be the only person who’s gone to a funeral aware that my jacket and my skirt are not the same shade.

Sources:
Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Frances and Joseph Gies
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford
The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

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

Amazon

29 Comments

Filed under Medieval Life

Medieval Ink

Scrivener’s Table

I should have written this post a couple of weeks ago after I wrote about vellum, but I couldn’t find a reference to a recipe. This week, however, I’ve found three. Ink is one of those things that always makes me think ‘what thought process made them think of that?’. I understand why you would start with something like ash or soot mixed with water or vinegar. If you want to write something down it probably needs to be dark and it definitely needs to be liquid. Mixing certain types of ash with vinegar did produce a form of usable ink, especially if mixed with gum arabic, but it clogged up pens and it faded quickly. When it comes to the final recipe, though, I don’t know what made someone take the final leap that made it work.

At the top of the post you can see the photograph I took of a scrivener’s table at a re-enactment event I went to a few years ago. Although he was getting ready to go off with Henry V to fight at Agincourt in 1415 (hence the bow beside the table), most of his equipment would have been used by fourteenth century scriveners as well. You can see that he uses feathers for pens and has the necessary blades to cut and shape them. He also has everything that he needs to make ink.

Ash and vinegar served for a while, but, in the seventh century, a new, more effective ink was created. The recipe for this version of it dates from 1393 and was included in his guide for his wife (The Good Wife’s Guide) by Le Ménagier de Paris:
Take two ounces each of galls and gum arabic and three ounces of copperas. Break the galls and soak them for three days, then boil in three half gallons of rainwater or water from a still pond. And when they have boiled long enough so that nearly half the water has boiled off – that is, there is only about three quarts left – take off the fire, and add the copperas and gum, and stir until cool. Store in a cold, damp place. Note that after three weeks it will spoil.

There is so much to notice in this, not least that the recipe produces three quarts (six pints) of ink which only lasts for three weeks. There must have been a lot of wastage with a pen made out of a feather to make it necessary to make six pints of ink every three weeks and, given that it takes the best part of four days to make a new batch, you couldn’t afford to run out before you made some more. It wasn’t the kind of thing that you could run out to the shops to buy. On the other hand, it was something that everyone who used it knew how to make.

So, let’s look at the ingredients of ink. In the photograph of the scrivener you can see a bowl of small balls. These are the galls. They are made by gall wasps in oak trees and are also known as oak apples. The wasp lays an egg in a leaf bud and the larva injects a chemical into it so that the bud forms a protective layer around the larva. When I first heard about oak apples, I thought they were a natural product of the tree. Then, learning that it had something to do with wasps, I assumed that it was something secreted by the wasps. Now I know that it’s a bit of both. The important ingredient that galls provided was tannin.

Gum arabic is hardened acacia sap. It’s used a lot in foods today – chewing gum (not surprisingly), marshmallows and ‘gummy’ sweets. It’s also used in cosmetics and paints. It comes in a solid and a powdered form. Mainly it’s used as a thickener, which is its role in ink.

Copperas is iron (or ferrous) sulphate. It dissolves in water. This is the part of ink production that causes my ‘why did they think that would work?’ reaction. I can see why someone would try ground oak apples, as they’re dark when ground, but why would you add copperas? Copperas is a manufactured substance, which makes it worse. I have read that it came about because an iron nail fell into the mixture, but that seems very random to me. If you have any information to add to this, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Sources:
Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Frances and Joseph Gies
The Good Wife’s Guide by Le Ménagier de Paris, Trans Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose
How to be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman

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

Amazon

18 Comments

Filed under Medieval Life