August Pottage


The Vegetarian Society tells me that August is the month for :Aubergine, Beetroot, Blackberries, Blackcurrants, Broad Beans, Broccoli, Carrots, Cauliflower, Cherries, Chicory, Chillies, Courgettes, Cucumber, Damsons, Fennel, French Beans, Garlic, Greengages, Kohlrabi, Leeks, Lettuce, Loganberries, Mangetout, Marrow, Mushrooms, Parsnips, Peas, Peppers, Potatoes, Plums, Pumpkin, Radishes, Raspberries, Redcurrants, Rhubarb, Rocket, Runner Beans, Samphire, Sorrel, Spring Greens, Spring Onions, Strawberries, Summer Squash, Sweetcorn, Swiss Chard, Tomatoes, Watercress.

I’ve crossed out the many things that have come to England since the fourteenth century to show you how much more choice we have now in our own gardens before we even need think of imported food.  In my own garden I’m overrun with courgettes (zucchinis) and my aubergines (eggplants) are filling out very nicely. Unfortunately, neither was available 700 years ago. My beetroots are doing well and I’m trying for a second crop of peas while it’s still very warm.

As you can see in the picture above, my leeks are tiny, but need thinning. I decided to try leeks and beetroot.  I also managed to find a few beetroot leaves that the caterpillars hadn’t eaten. As usual, there’s no pepper or salt.


I know this is almost the same as I had last month, with the exception of the carrots, but that’s the way of it when you eat food you grow yourself in season. I’ve been eating courgettes every other day for what feels like weeks now and the chickens are laying two or three eggs a day whether I want them or not. If you have a recipe that uses both, I’d love to hear from you.

When I saw the pottage in the bowl I was less than impressed and it tasted as bad as it looked. Last month small pieces of hot beetroot went very well with carrot. On their own they were unpleasant. I had to eat something else to take the taste away. Then I had to have a glass of homemade strawberry wine.

The experiment is proving to be a bit hit and miss and this was a definite miss.


Medieval Gardens – Anne Jennings

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 Food

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket

Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket

Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket, British Museum

This is the final object of those I photographed in the British Museum and it’s my favourite. It’s a tiny reliquary, about 6¼” tall, 6″ wide and 2¾” deep. I like it for several reasons. Firstly, because it’s just beautiful. Despite its age the colours shine and sparkle. Secondly, because it’s enamelware from Limoges, which I don’t come across very often. Thirdly, because it’s about Thomas Becket, who was an important English saint in the Middle Ages.

I first became aware of the enamelware produced in Limoges when I was doing research for my novel Beloved Besieged, part of which is set in the town. My Pinterest board for the novel is full of pictures of enamelled objects made there and it’s beautiful stuff.

Enamel is a type of glass fused onto metal. The metal was usually copper, but it could be silver or gold. The metal between the pieces of enamel was gilded. This type of object was produced mainly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. About forty similar caskets made to contain relics of Thomas Becket still survive.

Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, was killed on 29th December 1170 in his own cathedral by four knights who had been sent, or believed they had been sent, by Henry II to strike him down. Having risen from fairly humble beginnings to become Chancellor, Becket was made archbishop of Canterbury. Since it was Henry II who had raised Becket to prominence, he naturally assumed Becket would side with him in the constant struggle between medieval kings and the pope about the authority each had over the king’s subjects.

The archbishop did not support the king and was exiled. They were reconciled and the trouble began again. Hearing the king utter the infamous words, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ (possibly in medieval French, Norman French or even Latin, but definitely not English) the four knights rushed off to Canterbury and did their king’s bidding.

Becket was canonised in 1173. Henry II made a very public penance, and he and his descendants were very energetic in promoting the murdered archbishop as a saint. His relics were sent to churches and monasteries all over Europe in reliquaries like this one. The shrine at Canterbury drew pilgrims from many countries, becoming the fourth most visited shrine in the Middle Ages, after Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela.

Pilgrims didn’t just visit the shrine, they also bought ‘Canterbury water’. It was holy water mixed with a drop of Becket’s blood and was said to cure many illnesses and disabilities. Sold in ampoules it could be taken back home if the sick person was too ill to make the pilgrimage on their own behalf.  The monks also sold badges to pilgrims as reminders (souvenirs) of their pilgrimage.

Becket was an important saint for English pilgrims, as demonstrated by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. His pilgrims were on their way to Becket’s shrine. Many pilgrimages ended at Canterbury, but others continued on to Dover, with pilgrims crossing the English Channel in the next stage of their journey to Rome, Compostela or Jerusalem. It was not always safe enough to travel further afield, though, and many had to be satisfied with Canterbury.

The saint’s murder was a popular motif in medieval art and the British Museum also has an alabaster panel depicting it. The image on the reliquary is of two of the knights attacking Becket in front of the altar. It dates from the early thirteenth century, about 40 years after the event. At this time Limoges was part of the duchy of Aquitaine, whose dukes were the Plantagenets, which explains why so many Becket reliquaries were made there.

Henry II’s descendants took their devotion to St Thomas seriously.  They were always stopping off at Canterbury to visit his shrine. Edward III once walked from London to Canterbury as a pilgrim. In 1343 he gave a golden ship to the shrine after he had been saved from a storm. Edward of Woodstock, his eldest son, is interred there.

All my photograph does really well is show you how tiny the reliquary is. Here’s a better photograph of its front.


Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson

The Perfect King – Ian Mortimer



Filed under Pilgrimage, Thirteenth Century

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Chaucer Astrolabe

The Chaucer Astrolabe

The Chaucer Astrolabe, British Museum

The astrolabe was a multi-purpose scientific instrument in the Middle Ages. When the illegitimate child of Abelard and Héloise was born in the early twelfth century, he was named Astrolabe in its honour.

An astrolabe, according to James Robinson in Masterpieces of Medieval Art, is a two-dimensional map of the three-dimensional celestial sphere. In much the same way that an Ordnance Survey map can help you find your way through a wood, up hills and over streams you’ve never seen before, so an astrolabe can you to find your way through the heavens. It was, as you can see, a sophisticated instrument.


The Chaucer astrolabe is dated 1326, 16 years before Chaucer was born, and is the earliest dated European astrolabe. Although it didn’t belong to Chaucer, the poet wrote a treatise on the astrolabe, the first in English, and described an instrument very like this. Dedicated to his son Lewis, it was written by 1391. There are more than thirty surviving manuscript copies of the treatise.

Most texts about the construction and use of astrolabes were written in Latin. They were used to tell the time in the many different time systems that existed in fourteenth-century England. It could be used to work out angles and the height of objects. It could also be used while casting horoscopes.

Saints’ days in English and the latitude for Oxford are written on the back, indicating that it was principally for use in England. There are also inscriptions relating to Jerusalem, Babylon, Montpellier and Paris.

It’s just over 5 inches in diameter and less than half an inch thick. The star pointers are shaped like birds.

On the left in my photograph is Richard II’s quadrant. The raised piece that you can see is his emblem: the white hart. It’s a timepiece, enabling its user to tell the time from the angle of the sun. It’s dated 1399, the year of the king’s death.


Masterpieces of Medieval Art


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Science

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Bacinet and Mail

Bacinet and mail

Bacinet and Mail, British Museum

Although separated by several decades in manufacture, this bacinet and piece of mail are displayed together. Given the high cost of armour, older (usually inherited) items would often be worn with newer ones, provided they fitted well enough. The bacinet comes from about 1430, while the mail comes from the last quarter of the fourteenth century.

The bacinet might be Italian. Originally there would have been a visor to protect the eyes. There is also a slot in the top of the helmet where a crest would have been worn. It was a very popular style of helmet in England during the Hundred Years War.

This one was found in Kordofan, Sudan. It probably got there because French traders sold arms illegally to the Khalif of Egypt around the middle of the fifteenth century.

As you can probably tell from the photograph, I was more interested in the chain mail than in the helmet. Chain mail was, as its name suggests, made up of chains of iron or steel rings linked together. They’re linked by flattening and riveting the ends. The protection they offered varied according to the diameter of the links. This piece of mail is made up of rings approximately 1 cm in diameter.

Mail was an old form of protection by the fourteenth century and was worn over padded clothing. The padding protected the wearer’s skin from the metal rings, as well as from the enemy’s weapons.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries even horses wore mail. By the fourteenth century the technology to make plate armour (large bits of metal which could be shaped to protect various parts of the body) was being developed. This meant that there was less need for those who could afford plate armour to cover themselves completely in mail.

Mail could be made into almost any shape and it was very flexible. The most common items were the habergeon and hauberk: the short and long mail shirt. The shirt could be made with or without sleeves. Head protection in the form of a mail coif was also used. When an item of mail was damaged it was easy to repair and, if necessary, the rings could be taken apart and reused. For this reason, very few pieces of mail survive in their original form.

A better photograph of the bacinet cand be found here and there’s a slightly better photograph of the mail here.


Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James M Robinson

Masterpieces of European Arms and Armour – Tobias Capwell


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Warfare

July Pottage


In June I started a project of making a seasonal pottage each month, using things that would be available to a medieval household at the lower end of society. As far as possible I’m using things from my own garden, although this exercise makes me realise how many of the things I grow were not available here in the fourteenth century.

One of my gardening friends told me a couple of weeks ago that his onions and garlic were ready, which was a bit of a relief. I like garlic and it does give food a bit of a kick when you’re not using salt or pepper, which were beyond the means of most people.

Correlating my list from the Vegetarian Society with the guidance of Medieval Gardens about which vegetables were available in the Middle Ages, I worked out that I could use:  Beetroot,  Broad Beans,  Carrots,  Garlic, Lettuce, Onions, Peas,  Radishes, Sorrel, Spring Greens, Turnips and Watercress. That’s quite a long list, but not all of those are things that I’d particularly want in a bowl together.

I’ve long wanted to try beetroot leaves, so I thinned the beetroots intending to add the leaves to the pot. Since the thinned plants included a few decent-sized roots, I threw those into the pot as well, along with the stalks. As you can see from the photo above, there were rather a lot of leaves, but not all of them were in a good enough condition to be eaten. Blackfly has been a major problem in the garden this year and they have taken to the beetroot.

I also thinned the leeks. At this stage of the year they look a bit like tiny spring onions, but they do have some taste and I thought a medieval housewife would probably be frugal enough to use them. Since there weren’t many, I added some chives as well. I bought a carrot and put that in with some garlic.

I used very little water, remembering how unpleasant the liquid had been in last month’s pottage.

July pottage

This is what it looked like and it was very tasty. I don’t know if it was a combination eaten in the fourteenth century, but I enjoyed it. It was much sweeter than I expected and even the liquid was good. I didn’t miss salt and pepper and I definitely want to try beetroot leaves again.




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Food

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The King’s and Queen’s Pavements

The king's pavement

The King’s Pavement, British Museum

The King’s and Queen’s Pavements were laid in Clarendon Palace, near Salisbury, in Wiltshire. The palace was originally a royal hunting lodge and Henry II and Henry III both spent a lot of money converting it into something fit to receive them for longer periods.

It was Henry III who was responsible for the pavement above. He had a circular floor laid in his private chapel around 1244. The floor was about 4m in diameter.  Up until this point tiled floors were mainly found in ecclesiastical buildings. Once the king had one, everyone wanted a decorated pavement in their houses.

The construction of the pavement was ordered on 12th March 1244. The tiles were made on-site and a kiln was built nearby to fire them.  The thin green tiles are just green tiles, but the brown tiles are inlaid with designs showing very stylised leaves and fleurs de lys. There was an inscription around the outer edge of the pavement, but no one knows what it said since most of the letters are lost and the ones that were found were not necessarily in their original location.

The chapel for which the pavement was made was on the first floor and the tiles were scattered when the building collapsed. The palace was in poor condition before the time of Elizabeth I, who had to eat somewhere else when she visited it, so unsafe had it become. It was a ruin by the eighteenth century.

The queen's pavement

The Queen’s Pavement, British Museum

The Queen’s pavement covered the ground floor of Eleanor of Provence’s personal apartments in Clarendon Palace. She was Henry III’s queen and was a bit of a trend-setter, bringing fashions from France with her. Even in those days the English were in thrall to French fashion. In her private rooms there were glazed windows and a fireplace, both of which took a long time to spread across England.

The tiles depict symbolic animals: regal lions and griffins who guarded treasure.

These are the last of my tiles from the museum.


Sources: Masterpieces of Medieval Art by James Robinson


Filed under Medieval Buildings, Thirteenth Century

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Doorknocker in the Shape of a Lion’s Head


Doorknocker in the shape of a lion’s head, British Museum

This object has a cumbersome name, but it’s impressive enough to deserve it. It’s about 14 inches across and dates from around 1200.

Some time ago I wrote about how the idea of sanctuary worked in English law. The doorknocker played a vital role for the criminal who wanted sanctuary, as he had to knock on the church door to gain entry. In theory, but not always in practice, the criminal could remain in the church for forty days without harm from those pursuing him. After that time he had to leave the church and take his punishment or leave England.

Most churches in the fourteenth century had knockers, but they began to be removed and melted down when the laws about sanctuary were repealed in the seventeenth century. Few church doorknockers survive now and this one is such a lovely example.

It’s bronze and was made by the sand-casting method, which means it’s unique since the mould, made of sand, straw and manure, couldn’t be used twice. Once the molten bronze had been poured into the mould it was packed with sand, where it stayed until it had cooled. It was not a quick technique, but it was a proven one, having its roots in antiquity.

No one knows which church it belonged to, but its size and value indicate that it must have been an important one.

Lions were popular forms for ecclesiastical doorknockers and other examples have survived.

Sadly the ring is not original, so no thirteenth-century criminal grabbed it and pounded on the church door in the hope of gaining time for himself.

Here is a better photograph of the doorknocker than mine.



Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson


Filed under Church, Medieval Crime and Law, Thirteenth Century

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Dunstable Swan Jewel

The Dunstable Swan Jewel

The Dunstable Swan Jewel, British Museum

Some time ago I wrote a post about goldsmiths and used this item as an illustration of their work. What I didn’t realise at the time was how tiny it is. It’s about an inch and a quarter high and I walked past it before I realised it was there. I included the information cards in the shot so that you can see how small it is.

The swan was created around the beginning of the fifteenth century. It’s gold with a white enamel known as émail en ronde bosse. This was a technique that fused molten glass onto the gold. The surface of the gold was roughened before it was covered with the glass. This method was only perfected at the end of the fourteenth century.  It’s not known whether the jewel was made in France where the technique was developed, or in England.

Swans were considered an expression of nobility.  When that and the value of the jewel are taken into consideration, it must have belonged to someone of an elevated status, possibly from the de Bohun family or House of Lancaster, both of which used the swan as their symbol. You probably can’t see it from my photograph (this one is better), but there’s a crown around its neck which is, apparently, a very strong indication that it belongs to the house of Lancaster. One of the reasons for the confusion, though, is that Henry of Lancaster (later Henry IV) married Mary de Bohun in 1380 and adopted her family’s badge.

The jewel was a livery badge, which enabled others to identify the wearer’s family and political allegiance. Other members of the household would have worn a much cheaper version of the badge.

It was discovered in Dunstable at the location of a Dominican friary. Since many tournaments were held at Dunstable, it’s possible that the jewel was lost there by a knight or his lady. More prosaically, it might have been left with the friars for safe-keeping during the rather turbulent fifteenth century and its owner either forgot about it or was a victim of the turbulence.  I know which version I prefer.


Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson

Medieval Goldsmiths – John Cherry


Filed under Fourteenth Century

June Pottage

Having tried last year to make pottage that would resemble what ordinary people in the fourteenth century ate, I thought that this year I’d have a go at a pottage each month using only things that grow in my garden (or things that I could grow in my garden if I’d ever had any success with carrots, onions or garlic) and would have been available in the fourteenth century.

The basis of many of the pottages will be marrowfat peas and pearl barley. Marrowfat peas are peas which have been left in the pod to dry out. You have to soak them to use them. I’m fairly good at peas.

Peas and beetroot

Peas and beetroot

I use barley straw to keep my strawberries off the ground and one year the packers had obviously been careless, because there were seeds amongst the straw and they germinated.  So I know I could grow barley. Pearl barley is just barley that’s had its hull and bran removed. Supermarkets sell it as a thickener for soups and stews. The type I buy doesn’t need to be soaked overnight.


Strawberries on barley straw

In my garden in June I mostly have courgettes (zucchinis) and runner beans. Sadly, these came originally from the Americas, so I can’t use them. I also have peas, but a fourteenth-century housewife would leave those in their pods to dry out for stoarge. The chives are more or less at their peak and I’ll be using them to flavour my pottage.



Garlic is in season, so I can use that as well.  I have sorrel in the garden, but it’s gone to seed.



I’ve used this list of vegetables in season from the Vegetarian Society to help me where I don’t grow a particular vegetable and Medieval Gardens to confirm that the vegetable was available in the fourteenth century.

Depending on the weather, June could be a bad time of the year in the Middle Ages. Last year’s grain might be gone and this year’s wouldn’t yet be ready. For this pottage I’m going to assume that there are no peas and what grain is left is used for ale.

Given that there isn’t much available in the garden I thought I would make a leafy, runny pottage, more like a soup than a stew. I used spring greens (which are leafy like medieval cabbages), watercress, chives, garlic and sorrel.

I confess that I didn’t like the sound of this combination of vegetables, but I stuck them in a pot with some water and boiled them for half an hour. While it was cooking it smelled wonderful. I had forgotten, though, that sorrel goes grey when cooked. It looked fairly unappealing.

June Pottage

June Pottage

The taste wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. The leaves themselves had a lot of flavour, but the liquid tasted as if I’d done the washing up in it. I ate a bowl. I won’t say that I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t dreadful. In retrospect, I should probably have left the liquid in the pot as the basis of the next pottage.

Since it was such a thin pottage, I wondered what would sustain a medieval person during this time of the year. Ale would provide many of the necessary calories. When I went to the chicken coop to collect the eggs one morning, I had another part of the answer. Rural households would have had chickens and the eggs could be eaten, sold or exchanged for other food.

Even though the pottage was not very interesting, I was, unlike my fourteenth-century counterpart, able to comfort myself afterwards with strawberries and cream.




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Food

Castle by Marc Morris – A Review

I’ve just posted a review of Marc Morris’ Castle on my book blog.

The Retired Reader


Published: April 2004

Pages: 288

I have a confession to make. Marc Morris is probably my favourite presenter of history on TV and we don’t, in my opinion, see him enough. This book goes with the TV series of the same name shown in 2004.

It covers the development of castles in Britain from the arrival of the Normans, through the Anarchy, Edward I’s annexation of Wales, and Scottish castles, to the slighting of English and Welsh castles under Oliver Cromwell.

For all that it’s full of useful facts and informative diagrams, it’s a very easy book to read. Dr Morris has a very informal writing style and knows how to write a non-fiction book as if he were telling a story. I can’t remember the last time a non-fiction book made me laugh aloud.

If you’ve ever asked yourself what a castle was for, you’ll find the answer in…

View original post 150 more words


Filed under Book Review, Castle