Things I’ve Learned From The Canterbury Tales Part One

Canterbury Tales

When I started reading The Canterbury Tales I guessed that I would come across a few things I didn’t already know about the fourteenth century. This has proven to be the case,  even within the first few pages, but some of the things I’ve learned aren’t really enough to sustain a whole post. I thought, therefore, that I would do a series of ‘pick and mix’ posts as things arise. There is nothing to link the things I’m writing about, other than that I came across them in The Canterbury Tales and found them interesting

One of the pilgrims going to Canterbury is a friar. In his description in the General Prologue, Chaucer tells us that the friar keeps knives and pins in his long sleeves to give to women. This came as a bit of a shock to me. Aside from sounding rather dangerous, why was the friar giving things to women? The notes came to my aid here and it turns out that friars, who travelled from place to place preaching and begging for alms, were ideally placed to be pedlars. The friar carried his wares in his sleeves and was always ready to make a sale. Chaucer tells his readers that he made a fair amount of money in this trade. He gives the impression that he doesn’t think this is a good thing.

The friar also participated in ‘love days’. They’re not what you’re thinking. Instead, they were meetings between the parties to a dispute who wanted to reach a settlement out of court. Sometimes this was with the aim of avoiding going to court at all, and sometimes the love day took place after those involved had appeared in court but before a judgement had been made. The friar was an arbiter, putting him in a position where he could receive bribes if he wished, and we assume that he did so wish. Chaucer doesn’t have a very high opinion of his friar. Perhaps he had suffered at the hands of friars at love days. Chaucer made a bit of a habit of being in debt in later life and there are records of cases against him seeking repayment. Some of those cases would have been settled at a love day and not always in his favour.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer edited by Jill Mann
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.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law, Medieval Life, Medieval Monks, The Medieval Church

The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall – A Review

Chaucer life

Pages: 380
Published: 1992

More Chaucer this week. This time it’s the man himself rather than his work. The last time I wrote about his life on this blog (towards the end of 2018), Toutparmoi mentioned The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall, so I bought a copy, and it has proven to be a good purchase. It was published almost thirty years ago, so there is a chance that some of what it contains has been superseded by more recent research.

The book’s subtitle is A Critical Biography and that’s the part that I found least pleasing. Pearsall ties what is known of Chaucer’s life to the supposed dates of his works. I say ‘supposed’, because no one really knows when he wrote which works. Some can be narrowed down to a decade or so, and The Book of the Duchess must have been written after the death of Blanche of Lancaster, the duchess it celebrates. There are some clues, but few of them clear cut.

Since I’ve only read one of Chaucer’s poems, these sections of the book meant nothing to me. The discussions about various interpretations of the actions of different characters, particularly in The Canterbury Tales, must be engaging if you’re familiar with them, but I’m not.

There are surprisingly few records of Chaucer’s life. Most of them are about annuities given to him, or expenses for clothing for special occasions while he was in service to various royal households. Some relate to court cases against him for debt and one for rape. This last raises all kinds of questions about Chaucer, but Pearsall offers no definitive answer, which is quite correct of him, given the impossibility of obtaining any of the facts, let alone all of them after more than six centuries.

Pearsall is very good at putting what is known (and sometimes what isn’t known) about Chaucer into context. There’s no information about Chaucer’s education, so Pearsall doesn’t jump to conclusions about his schooling, but describes the kind of education a boy of Chaucer’s class would have had. He does something similar at other points in the book.

The picture Pearsall paints of Chaucer is, of necessity, superficial. It’s also surprisingly unattractive. It’s hard to reconcile the (possible) rapist and constant debtor with the trusted servant of royalty and creator of some of the best poetry written in the Middle Ages.

I think Pearsall’s ideal reader is someone who has read all of Chaucer’s works, is interested in the fourteenth century in general and in Chaucer’s life in particular, in that order. Since I only fall into the last two categories, I don’t feel that I’ve reaped the full benefit of reading this book. Despite that, I’ve learned a lot from it.


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 Book Review, Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment

What Did Pardoners and Summoners Do?

Canterbury Tales

Can you tell that I’ve finally started reading The Canterbury Tales? I’m reading it in Middle English, because I like doing things that are difficult. To be honest, it’s not that hard to get an idea of what’s going on, but you do need the vocabulary to understand the detail. Fortunately, the Penguin edition that I’m using has both a very good glossary and extensive notes. It’s a huge book, though, so it will take me a while to get through it.

I’ve only read a few pages so far, but I already have some questions that aren’t answered for me in the notes. To be fair, they might be answered later, but I’m beginning to suspect they might not be. This post will be the first in an occasional series about things relating to The Canterbury Tales. They might be things that I learn from reading the poem or questions arising from it about life in fourteenth-century England. Today’s post is the latter.

Although I haven’t come across them in the book yet, I know that two of the pilgrims going to Canterbury are a pardoner and a summoner.  What I don’t know is what they do, except the obvious that one pardons and the other summons. Who do they pardon and summon, though, and on whose behalf?

Here are the answers.

The pardoner was a secular clerk or friar, whose role was originally that of messenger, which we’ll come to later. By the fourteenth century he was carrying relics around with him, which he displayed for a fee. Anyone who knew anything about relics in the Middle Ages would have realised how unlikely it was that someone in such a lowly position would be travelling around with one, let alone more than one, relic. Even tiny fragments were kept in reliquaries or inside shrines and further secured within churches. Chaucer’s pardoner has a pillow-case he says is the veil of the Virgin Mary and he also has a bit of St. Peter’s fishing boat. I suspect that Chaucer’s contemporaries were very aware of what was going on with regard to false relics.

The pardoner also sold indulgences, which many people wrongly believed were pardons for sin. Their official title was questor (asker), since they asked people about their sins. The role was abolished by the pope in 1562, a little late, as the selling of indulgences was one of the abuses that figured largely in Luther’s ninety-five theses in 1517, which led to Reformation.

Indulgences were instituted with good intentions in the tenth century.  People confessed their sins to a priest and were absolved. They were then given a penance. Sometimes people were given penances that were beyond them physically and they could pay something in place of carrying out the penance. That was an indulgence. At first indulgences were specific to the person receiving them.

More general indulgences were introduced in the eleventh century. These could apply to anyone who met the conditions attached to them. The best known general (or plenary) indulgence is probably the one relating to the First Crusade in 1096 when Pope Urban II said that any man who set out to take Jerusalem for Christianity would have all his penance for the rest of his life cancelled.

Urban II also made use of partial indulgences for pilgrims visiting to specific churches and those who helped to restore a monastery in Normandy. During the twelfth century bishops started issuing their own indulgences to pilgrims visiting certain shrines in their dioceses. From that point it got out of hand.

An indulgence could reduce or cancel entirely the sinner’s penance. It did not forgive the sin or release the sinner from his guilt, although many people believed that it did. The finer points of theology might have been discussed in the great church councils attended by cardinals and bishops, but few parish priests understood them. Their parishioners had even less chance of knowing what the real purpose of an indulgence was.

Let us return to our seller of indulgences. The things that pardoners generally did were prohibited. They were not supposed to sell indulgences, preach in churches or forgive sins and they weren’t supposed to collect money for displaying relics. Officially all they could do was deliver the paperwork of an indulgence from the pope or a bishop to a repentant sinner.

As early as 1215, at the fourth Lateran Council, it was agreed that questors should be licensed. A licence could come from the pope or a bishop. In theory that meant that pardoners would be limited in where they could go and that they would have to show their licence as they travelled. In practice few people could read and most people wouldn’t have known to ask to see the licence anyway.

That obviously didn’t work and the behaviour of pardoners got worse. An edict was sent out in 1267 to say that pardoners couldn’t demand accommodation with clergy in the towns and villages they passed through, nor could they force a local priest to gather the parishioners to hear them preach, which was obviously what had been happening.

Even that wasn’t enough, though. By 1312 pardoners had to show their credentials to bishops in order to enter their dioceses. The Canterbury Tales was written towards the end of the century and things were clearly no better. To men like Chaucer, pardoners were clearly disreputable.

The other pilgrim whose job was a mystery to me is the pardoner’s friend the summoner. He was an official of the ecclesiastical courts and it was his responsibility to bring people to who were believed to have broken canon law to the archdeacon’s court. Lay people were summoned to the ecclesiastical courts for not paying their tithes or death duties, or after being accused of a sexual offence, or if they were involved in a marital dispute or were accused of perjury. By the end of the fourteenth century summoners were considered to be little more than spies and blackmailers.

They were introduced in England in the thirteenth century. It was widely believed that they threated people with non-existent crimes in order to extort money. They could also be bribed by those who were guilty to let them go. In this they were no different from many in the secular courts, although I think they were probably meant to be different.

Who Murdered Chaucer? – Terry Jones
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases – Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Pilgrimage – Jonathan Sumption


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 Entertainment, Medieval Life

Five Things To Do With Urine In The Middle Ages


This post has been a long time in the making. It has taken so long because I wanted to find proper sources for everything, but I’ve had to accept that if a respected historian says something in a television documentary it will have to do.

The respected historian I’m referring to is Ruth Goodman. She was in all of the historical farm series on BBC Two, but the series that I’m using are The Secrets of the Castle (about building a castle in the thirteenth century), Tudor Monastery Farm (set in 1500) and Tales from the Green Valley (set in 1620), all of which I watched for the third or fourth time in the last few weeks.  Although the last two are not strictly speaking about the Middle Ages, some of the uses people had for urine then were the same as they were in the fourteenth century.  I was originally inspired to write this post by something Ruth Goodman said in the Secrets of the Castle. She said that people in the Middle Ages used urine for everything. Whilst that’s an exaggeration, it isn’t much of one.

Urine was a valuable resource and it was collected. In the fourteenth century there were no indoor toilets, unless you lived in a castle or a monastery, and nobody who needed to get up in the night was going to go outside to the midden (the most basic form of toilet) or the necessary house (a slightly more sophisticated toilet, with walls and a roof). Even if it wasn’t icy, raining or snowing outside, the toilet facilities would be some distance away from the house and the darkness of night was considered dangerous. Instead of going out they used a chamber pot. This was emptied each morning into a storage pot, which was also kept as far away as possible from the house. The pot was covered and the urine left to ferment,  becoming amonia. I’m a bit shaky on the science, so that  might not be quite what happens. Whatever it is that goes on in the storage pot, there is a usable, but very smelly,  product after three weeks.

We saw one of the uses when we were looking at the production of cloth. Stored urine was used in the fulling and bleaching processes. Urine was pounded into the cloth, with with the feet or wooden paddles. The cloth was rinsed and then spread out to dry in the sun. Something similar was done on a domestic scale on washday. Contrary to popular belief, medieval people in general did wash their clothes and bedlinen. It was their underclothes that they washed, however. The outer layer was usually made from woollen cloth, which can be washed, but takes forever to dry, even in the summer. It made sense, therefore, to protect the woollen garments from things that could make them dirty, such as sweat, by not wearing them next to the skin. Garments that touched the skin tended to be made of linen, which could be washed frequently.  These were put into a tub and had the stale urine poured over them. After a bit of of a soak, they were taken to the river where they were rinsed, then beaten with a paddle to get the dirt out. When they were clean they were dried in the sun.

I wrote last week that tanning was such a malodorous process that tanneries were usually built beyond a town’s walls. One of the reasons why it was so bad was that this was another process that used urine. It was one of the substances used to remove hair from the leather. The leather was soaked in a vat of urine until the hairs could be scraped off. Thankfully, the later processes removed the smell, but being a tanner could not have been pleasant.

Urine was also used in dying, where it was a mordant: a substance that fixes the dye to the fibre so that it doesn’t wash out. Woad, for example,  was picked, chopped finely and moulded into balls. Once the balls were dry, they were ground into a powder, to which urine was added. The threads were dipped into the resulting mixture, which was green. When they removed from the liquid, they turned blue. The technique is still used today by some people who use natural dyes.

Medicine also made use of urine for diagnosing illnesses. Much as you can tell today from your urine whether you’re hydrated or not, or that you’ve been eating beetroot or asparagus, a medieval physician could learn much from the colour, smell or taste of his patient’s urine. That’s why you knew without thinking too much about it that the monk at the top of the post is a physician. His patients are bringing him flasks of urine for him to make diagnoses. Just as kings are always depicted wearing their crowns in medieval art (even if they’re in bed) so physicians are depicted with urine flasks.

Last, but by no means least, urine was used in alchemy. In the fourteenth century alchemy was a respectable science and it wasn’t always about turning lead into gold. In this case, however, it was. One path towards turning one metal into another was to turn one metal into the facsimile of another. The theory was that if you could imitate something you would understand more about how to create it.  Urine, specifially urine from a youth, was used in a process to create an imitation of gold. Just in case you want to give it a go, the recipe is one dram of lime and one dram of ground sulphur. They’re mixed together, then the urine is added and the mixture heated. When it looks like blood, it should be filtered. If you dip a piece of silver into the clear liquid, will take on the appearance of gold.

Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine by Nancy G Siraisi
Tudor Monastery Farm by Peter Ginn, Ruth Goodman and Tom Pinfold
The Secrets of Alchemy by Lawrence M. Principe


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 Family, Medieval Life, Medieval Medicine, Medieval Science

Medieval Shoes and Pattens

Shoes 2

In the fourteenth century shoes were mostly made from leather, which was often tawed, rather than tanned. Tanning changed the structure of the leather, making it last longer and less likely to decompose. Tawing, on the other hand, was a process that made the leather softer and easier to stretch. The leather was soaked in a solution that could include egg yolks, flour and potash.

Leather shoes were made by the turnshoe method. A soft piece of leather – the upper – was placed skin side down on the last. It was stitched to the sole and turned inside out.

Most shoes were very simple and men’s and women’s shoes were similar. At the beginning of the fourteenth century there wasn’t even any difference between right and left shoes, other than that made by the wearer’s feet in use. Over the course of the century this changed, at least in the shoes made for the wealthy.

There were various ways of making sure that shoes didn’t come off. They could be laced on the side or top, buckled, and they might be made with or without back straps.

Shoes for the wealthy could have patterns scored in them in which the top of the leather was scraped away to reveal the suede beneath. Alternatively, leather uppers could be decorated with scoring, patterning of the leather and embroidery.

Sometimes the leather was decorated by punching holes in it to make diamond-shaped openings, forming a lattice on the upper of the shoe. Sometimes the spaces created would be filled with embroidery. It made the leather very fragile, though, so was presumably something only for the wealthy, for whom shoes tended to be more decorative than useful or hard-wearing

Pattens by the bed

It was also during the fourteenth century that fashionable clothing became important. This didn’t just mean making clothes and shoes from better quality materials, but wearing styles that made it obvious that the wearer didn’t do physical labour or even walk very far. The most notorious example of this was the long-toed poulaine shoe, in which the thin, pointed toe could be as long again as the foot. No one who wore it could be in a hurry to get anywhere, nor could they walk very far. These shoes were popular at the court of Richard II. They were completely impractical for anything other than standing around looking important and were really just for aristocrats. They were condemned by the church in the mid-fourteenth century as being ‘more like the talons of a demon than the ornaments of men’. Contrary to popular belief, the points of the toes were not tied to the wearer’s legs. They were never that long. The photograph below shows an interpretation of the style for people who liked to look fashionable, but still had to work.

Pointed shoes

Sometimes the toes of poulaines were stuffed with hair or moss. In case you’re interested, researchers know what kind of moss was most used in London. It was thuisium tamarascinuum, which was both springy and absorbent.

There were other kinds of shoes available in the fourteenth century: buskings, ankle shoes, bateaux, galoches and trippes. In a different kind of fashion statement, some men had leather soles sewn into the bottom of their hose, so that it looked as if their shoes were the same colour as their leggings.

Most villages had someone who could work leather. If you were in a town there would be several places where you could have shoes made or buy secondhand ones.  Shoes were made by cordwainers, not cobblers.  They were named after Cordovan leather from southern Spain. It was very soft and very expensive. The London Company of Cordwainers (the shoemakers’ guild) was founded in 1272.

Cobblers, on the other hand, were originally dealers in secondhand shoes. They bought old shoes, which often needed some work doing on them before they could be sold on. Worn shoes went back to the cordwainer for repair, but cobblers began to develop the necessary skills and there were arguments with the cordwainers about how much new leather the cobblers could use in their work. Eventually it was agreed that they could use very little. Resoling and repairs requiring new leather were to be done by the cordwainers.

Shoes had flat heels, which meant that their wearers would be walking in mud on wet days or on ice on cold days. There were no pavements and roads weren’t even cobbled, so roads and paths were at the mercy of the elements. Although shoes could be made waterproof by the mid-twelfth-century, most weren’t. The method involved adding more layers of leather, which was expensive. There were easier ways of keeping feet dry.


Pattens kept the feet (and shoes) off the ground. They were usually made from a flat piece of wood with two wedges on the bottom. Sometimes, like the pair in the photograph above, they were flat and hinged, presumably to make walking in them easier.  They were usually made from alder, willow or poplar. Alder is a durable wood even when it gets wet, but it was also the preferred wood for arrows, which took priority.

The leather straps holding them on the wearers’ feet could also be decorated in the same way as shoes or they could be painted. Medieval people loved decorations and bright colours.

Here’s a video of shoes being made in the medieval way. You’ll see that the process is even more fiddly than you think.

Medieval Bodies– Jack Hartnell
Shoes and Pattens– Francis Grew and Margrethe de Neergaard
The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – 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.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Clothing

Trial by Battle by Jonathan Sumption – A Review

trial by battle

Published: 1990
Pages: 672

Trial by Battle is the first volume in Jonathan Sumption’s history of the Hundred Years War. It begins with the death of Charles IV, King of France, in 1328 and ends with the fall of Calais to Edward III in 1347.

Many pages and words are spent on examining the causes of the war. This is really useful, as its origins are more complex than shorter histories choose to say. It’s not simply that Edward III was making a claim for the French crown, or that he was defending a man who had taken refuge in his court, or that he wanted to recover lost territory in Aquitaine, although all of these (particularly the last) played a part. Sumption takes more than 200 pages to look at the political situations in England and France, their relative wealth and the characters of their kings. When the war finally starts, it makes some kind of sense.

I knew about some of the things that happened during this stage of the war, but Sumption shows how they relate to one another. Events that have always seemed unconnected are joined together by his vast knowledge and understanding of primary and secondary sources in different languages. Apparently he reads French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Catalan and Latin. The bibliography alone takes up 14 pages.

As you would expect from a Law Lord, Lord Sumption is very decisive on the legal niceties of claims of kingship and repudiating treaties. He also has a very clear view on what Edward III intended to achieve when he declared himself king of France.

I have enjoyed reading Trial by Battle very much, but I don’t know that I would recommend it to someone who knew nothing about the Hundred Years War. It would probably help to have an overview of what happened during this period and to have some knowledge of who was involved first. I was very uncertain about who was doing what in the Low Countries, partly because some of the counts and princes owed allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor and some to the King of France and I wasn’t always sure which was which, but also because most of them changed sides, one or two of them more than once. If you already have some understanding of the early years of the Hundred Years War, but want more detail, this is probably the book for you.


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:










Filed under Book Review, Hundred Years War, Medieval Warfare

Medieval Board and Table Games


It’s been a while since I wrote a post about medieval leisure activities in general, so I thought I’d have a look at board games in particular. Board games have a very ancient history. When I went to see the Tutankhamun exhibition in the British Museum in 1972 I saw a lovely wooden board divided into thirty squares in three rows of ten. It was set on top of a box which presumably held the counters. It was probably for playing senet, a game which was already a thousand years old when Tutankhamun was playing it in the second millennium BC. I’m fairly certain that it made such a big impression on me that I bought a postcard of it, but I’ve no idea where it would be now if I did.

Board games were very popular in the Middle Ages. Some boards, like the one I saw among Tutankhamun’s treasures, were made by craftsmen for kings and nobles, and were lavishly decorated, others were scratched on a more or less level piece of rock or wooden board. The same games were played on both.

Chess was probably the most popular indoor game for medieval nobles. It had its origins in India in the sixth century and came to Europe via Persia and Muslim Spain. The English phrase ‘checkmate’ derives from the Arabic ‘shah mat’ – the king is dead. The first time it was mentioned in Europe was when a priest was disciplined by his bishop for playing it in 1061.

Chess sets could be lavishly decorated and that was the kind preferred by those who wanted to show off their wealth. Roger Mortimer, who was responsible for the deposition of Edward II in 1327, had a set painted with gold. Edward II’s son, Edward III, had a board of crystal and jasper, with pieces to match.

The rules of medieval chess were not quite the same as they are today. The queen could only move one square in each direction. Bishops (or elephants as they were sometimes known) could only move two squares on the diagonal, but they could jump over pieces.

Draughts was played on the same board as was used for chess. It’s a much simpler (and shorter) game, in which pieces move across the board, jumping over the opponent’s pieces and taking them.

Backgammon was another eastern game with a long history. It’s even older than chess, dating back almost five thousand years. It arrived in France in the eleventh century, where it quickly became popular with gamblers and was banned to court officials in the twelfth century.


Dice games were often played on a board, or on a marked table. There were games for two or three dice. It was often banned for the lower classes in England, along with other games involving gambling.

Playing with cards also came to Europe from the East. It arrived either via Muslim Spain or was brought back by the Crusaders. They were first recorded in Europe in Italy in the thirteenth century. The main pack of cards was very similar to the one in use today, but many other packs were used, sometimes in the same game. Tarot cards were just another pack used for gaming and it wasn’t until the mid-eighteenth century that they were used for fortune-telling. Playing cards didn’t arrive in England until the early fifteenth century. I have no idea why it took so long for them to cross Europe. Perhaps it was the fact that the cards were very expensive.

Merelles was a popular board game among the lower classes. It’s better known today as nine men’s morris. Like draughts, it’s a straightforward game which involves jumping over pieces. It was so popular in medieval England that boards were scratched into pieces of furniture, including cloister seats in monasteries.

The Medieval World Complete – Robert Bartlett
Social History of England 1200 to 1500 – ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – 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:










Filed under Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life

Courtly Love


I write romance novels set in the fourteenth century. My characters, being usually of noble birth, don’t expect to marry for love, nor do they expect to find love within marriage. In the Middle Ages, marriages of nobles were arranged by their parents for political or territorial reasons. If the couple concerned were fortunate, they might develop respect for one another or fondness. In a few, rare, cases they might come to love one another, but this was not to be hoped for. Courtly love was, in some ways, an antidote to this. As its name implies, it was something associated with a court. It might be a royal court or a ducal court, but this wasn’t something for ordinary people. We’ll  see later, though, that this wasn’t always the case.

In courtly love the woman was idealised by the knight who loved her. She became his inspiration to virtuous, chivalrous and courageous behaviour, and it was important that she be deserving of his love. Their love should be mutual and secret.  They should never be alone and no one else should be able to tell that they were in love. I’m not sure how they were supposed to preserve the secret, since the knight should be brave in tournaments, be gentle when he was with his beloved, defend his lady’s honour and sing songs about her. I think that the last one, at least, would arose the suspicions of any husband or father.

In The Allegory of Love, an examination of love in medieval literature, C. S. Lewis wrote that courtly love was an idealisation of adultery. It’s easy to see how he could come to that conclusion when the main role of a noblewoman was to give her husband legitimate heirs. The love of a man with whom she could never be alone and whose motivation was to serve her rather than possess her sexually might be very attractive.

Christine de Pizan has a warning on this front, however. In The Treasure of the City of Ladies, written in 1405, she says that it’s just another form of seduction. A woman might find that she has been put on a pedestal, but she won’t be there forever. As soon as the man has succeeded in seducing the woman, he starts telling people and she is ruined.

Associated with the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the concept of courtly love was developed in the twelfth century. It’s possible that it came originally from the love poetry of Moorish Spain. The idea inspired the troubadours of southern France. These were noblemen who wrote songs to be sung by jongleurs in the courts where the langue d’oc was spoken. It was around the same time that there was a marked increase in devotion to the Virgin Mary. The two ideas probably fed off one another and there was a fair amount of religious imagery in courtly love, much to the horror of the church. It didn’t take long for the idea of courtly love to spread across Europe.

Apart from the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, where there were competitions to decide on who were the most worthy recipients of love, courtly love was mostly confined to stories, poems and songs. There were, however, two Italians who were poets rather than knights who embodied the principals of courtly love. Both Dante and Petrarch were inspired to write great poetry by their love for Beatrice and Laura respectively. They had to be content to love from a distance,using, like the troubadours, religious language to describe the beloved.


The Medieval World Complete by Robert Bartlett

Inside the Medieval World by James Harpur

Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages by Conor McCarthy


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:










Filed under Medieval Life, Medieval Marriage

Medieval Embroiderers


Butterbowden Cope By The original uploader was VAwebteam at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by NotFromUtrecht using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Embroidery was something that every woman brought up in a wealthy household could do.  They sewed purses for their husbands, or table linen or cushions for the household. If they were really accomplished, they might make something for the local church. I think all the women in my novels do embroidery at some point.

Nuns also embroidered. Some of them could get so carried away with it that they were told to return to their books and the singing of psalms.

Embroidery was not just a domestic skill, however, it was also a profession. In the domestic setting, embroidery was done by women. Professionally, it was mainly done by women, but some men were also involved. It looks as if all the designing was done by men.

For 200 years, from around 1150 to about 1350, England led Europe in embroidery skills and designs.  This was the peak of the opus anglicanum ((English work)) style of embroidery and it was in great demand, both in England and abroad. This changed until, around 1400, the quality had disappeared and Flemish and Italian designers and embroiders were pre-eminent.

There are no records of guilds of embroiders at this time, but they, or something like them, must have existed in order to maintain the quality of the work. Whether or not they did exist, there were still some rules that the professionals had to follow. Like the fletchers and bowyers we met a couple of weeks ago, they were not allowed to work by candlelight.

Leading embroiderers worked directly for kings, nobles, bishops and abbots, embroidering clothing, vestments and decorative pieces. Embroidery was not something that could be rushed, not if you were to produce something of quality. During the reign of Edward I, it took four women three and three-quarter years to make the altar frontal for the main altar in Westminster Abbey.

Large objects, such as copes, chasubles, altar-cloths, mantles, and bed and wall hangings were made in workshops by a team of embroiders. Smaller ones, such as bands, mitres, cushions and purses could be made by an embroideress in her own home.

The best embroideries were done with silk thread, and silver and gold thread, the making of which was a skill in itself. Those who could make it were paid more than embroiders. They spun narrow strips of gold or silver around a silk thread. The thread was extremely expensive, so it was attached to the cloth by couching, allowing all of it to be on display. Couching was a technique in which the gold thread was placed on the fabric in the desired shape and held in place by small stitches in silk thread along its length. This is a technique I’ve tried and it’s not easy.

The other main type of stitch used was the split stitch. It’s exactly what you think it is: the needle splits the thread as it comes from the back to the front of the fabric. I’ve only ever done this by accident.

After the Reformation, many church vestments were destroyed so that the precious metals and jewels could be recovered. Very little medieval embroidery has survived and even the Bayeux Tapestry was almost ripped up on several occasions.

Here is a very short video showing the process used in the Middle Ages to create a piece of embroidery.


Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers by 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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Filed under Medieval Clothing, The Medieval Church

Warfare in Medieval Manuscripts by Pamela Porter – A Review

medieval warfare

This week I’ve read a short book about medieval warfare. It’s not entirely accurate to say that I’ve read it, though. Warfare in Medieval Manuscripts is more or less a picture book. That isn’t to denigrate it at all, as it’s full of wonderful pictures of warfare taken from manuscripts in the British Library. I don’t know how many illustrations there are, but probably more than three-quarters of the 128 pages have a colour picture showing one or more aspects of medieval warfare.

Given those proportions, the text isn’t as detailed as you might hope, but I did learn something that I’m saving up for a future post.

There are six chapters:

  • The Art of War
  • Knights, Chivalry and the Training for War
  • Knightly Arms and Armour
  • Armies and Battles
  • Castles and Sieges
  • Gunpowder and the Decline of Medieval Warfare

I don’t know that the chosen illustrations necessarily fall neatly into these categories, as there are cannon and handguns shown well before the chapter about gunpowder.

The illustrations themselves are wonderful. I had to get out a magnifying glass so that I could appreciate the detail more easily and there is a lot of detail to appreciate.

One thing that I found less pleasing about the book is that the pictures are labelled according to the point that Porter is using them to illustrate, rather than telling the reader which event they’re depicting. My favourite illustration, for example, is called “Weapons old and new are used side by side”. The British Library calls it “Siege of Troyes“. I  like it because it shows old and new weapons, but the picture speaks for itself. It shows cannon and pikes and crossbows and longbows. It’s that little bit more interesting when you know that it represents the siege of Troy.

That’s really the only fault I can find with the book. If you’re interested in contemporary depictions of medieval warfare, this is the book for you.


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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Filed under Book Review, Medieval Warfare