Medieval Merchant’s House – The Back Room

 

Back room

Back room, the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

Continuing the exploration of the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton, we leave the hall and go into the private room which is behind the hall. In The Winter Love ,  which used this house as a model for Edward’s shop and home, this was the room in which Edward kept his money and his books.

As in the other rooms on the ground floor, the floor is made of beaten earth.

The passage runs the length of the house from the front door.  The whitewashed wall in the photograph below is the back of the house. The open door leads out to a small garden. When the house was first built the kitchen and the latrine were out there, physically separated from the house.

 

Bottom half of passage

Ground floor passage, the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

The back room was an important room and was probably where the merchant kept his strongbox and carried out his business. Its importance is shown by the moulded joists, the fireplace and the glazing. Although there was a fireplace in the room originally, the fireplace in the first photograph above dates from the sixteenth century.

 

beam and pottery in back room

Ceiling of back room of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

As has been done in the other rooms of the house, the back room has been filled with copies of medieval furniture and pottery.

An impressive chest has been placed in the room and it’s easy to imagine the merchant locking up his money and precious objects in it at the end of each day.

 

chest in bcack room

Chest in the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

Next to it is this rather jaunty looking cupboard.

 

Cupboard in back room

Cupboard in the back room of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

Below is a photograph of a detail of the cupboard decoration, showing a ship at sea confronted by a large fish.

 

Cupboard decoration

Detail of cupboard in back room of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

On the whole, I think this was probably the most pleasant room in the house when it was first built. It was smaller and, therefore, probably warmer than the hall. The glazed windows would have helped to keep the heat in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Medieval Merchant’s House – The Hall

 

Table in hall 2

The hall of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

Last week I gave an overview of the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton. This week we’ll spend some time in the most important space in the house – the hall.

Even though the house was owned by a wealthy merchant,  the hall is quite small.  The table takes up almost the entire width of the room. As indicated by the objects on the table, this was where the merchant, his family and their visitors would have eaten. They would have sat on one side of the table only and another table would have been put along the wall at right angles to the high table to accommodate any else who was eating with them.

The house has been furnished in fourteenth-century style based on furniture that has survived from that period as well as illustrations from the fourteenth century.  The pottery jugs and pots are copies of vessels found during excavations in a nearby street.

The hall would have displayed the merchant’s wealth, which you can see represented above by the ‘tapestry’ and below by the jugs and pots standing on the cupboard and the chest at the foot of the stairs leading up to the first floor.

 

The Hall from the gallery

Ceramic displays in the hall of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

The window you can see above, like the rest of the windows in the house, did not originally contain glass. They were closed with shutters.

The man who lived in such a house would have been wealthy enough to have silver vessels. silk, lengths of fine cloth, carpets, feather-beds, chests and expensive, fashionable clothes. All of these were mentioned in a merchant’s will in the middle of the fourteenth century. As much as possible of the merchant’s wealth would have been displayed in the hall.

Another chest stands against the wooden partition separating the hall from the passage.

 

Chest in hall

Chest in the hall of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

The hall was open to the ceiling.  There would have been a kind of chimney in the roof, since there would have been an open fire on the floor. In the photograph below you can see the gallery which runs between the two first floor bedrooms.

Hall wall and ceiling

Wall and ceiling of the hall, the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton.

This fire was the only form of heating in the house when it was first built. The windows were unglazed and the house would have been cold most of the time. In the winter it would have been very cold.

 

The floor is made of earth. It would have been covered in rushes. This is not a sign of poverty. The floor of most dwellings would have been made of earth, then covered with rushes. Tiles and stone were only for the very wealthy and cathedrals.

 

Earthen floor

Earthen floor, Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

I have included the picture below, despite its quality,  to show how small the hall is. I took it from the bottom of the stairs, with my back against the far wall.

 

Hall 2

Length of the hall, Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

 

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The Medieval Merchant’s House

IMG_0563

Recently I visited the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton again. It’s owned by English Heritage and was built in about 1290 by a wine merchant. Major renovations were carried out in the middle of the fourteenth century.  It’s easy to speculate that this was due to damage received when the French raided Southampton in 1338. Over the centuries the origins of the house had been forgotten, until it was damaged by a bomb in the Second World War. Although there wasn’t much of the original house left inside, the walls and floors left plenty of indications of where things were when the house was built and this was used to guide the reconstruction.

The house is in French Street, within the walls of the medieval town. It is not far from two of the gates in the walls through which goods were brought into the town from ships moored at the quays at the foot of the walls.

After the house was restored as closely as possible to how it was in the fourteenth century, it was furnished in a style which would have been familiar to its original owners. You’ll notice that not only that the colours of the furnishing are bright, but that there are many of them.

 

Chest in hall

Facsimile chest in the hall of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

I’ll have something to say about individual rooms in the future, but today I thought we would look at the geography of the house.  The front of the house was entirely reconstructed based on what was known about similar houses in the area. The planking across the bottom of the front window would be lowered to make a counter to serve customers.

The house sits on top of a vaulted cellar. This is where the wine merchant stored his wine. Sadly visitors are not permitted to go down there, but you can see the steps going down to it from the street.

 

Steps to the wine vault 2

Steps to the cellar of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

The first thing you see when you enter the front door of is a passage running the length of the house. The first door on the right leads to the shop, where customers would have been served. Today it houses the English Heritage shop.

 

Ground floor passage

Ground floor passage, the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

The next room is the hall. Here the merchant would have eaten his meals and received his visitors. The fireplace with its brick chimney is a later addition. When the house was first built there would have been a fire in the middle of the room.

The house belonged to a wealthy merchant. As indicated by the woven cloth behind the table, he might have been able to afford tapestries to keep him warm. Apologies for the quality of the photograph. It was very dark in the hall, as there is only one, small, window.

 

Table in hall 2

Table in the hall, the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

The final room on the ground floor is probably where the merchant managed his affairs. It’s the most private room in the house. The walls and floors are thin, however, and a conversation being held at anything much above a whisper can be heard almost anywhere else in the house.

 

Back room

Room at the rear of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

Stairs lead up from the hall to a gallery which joins two bedrooms on the first floor, one at the front of the house and one at the back.  Only the one at the front of the house has been set up as a bedroom, with two beds and a cradle.

 

Gallery

Gallery at the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton – looking towards the front of the house

 

 

Cradle

Front bedroom at the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

I used the house as the model for Edward’s house in The Winter Love, although I changed a few things for the sake of the story.

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Medieval Crossbows

Battle_of_Crecy_(crossbowmen)

In my current work in progress two English soldiers enter a French castle and discover that the soldiers from the castle garrison are pointing crossbows at them. Surely that was right, I thought. The French used the crossbow, the devil’s own weapon (its use against Christians had been prohibited by the papacy in the twelfth century), and the English used the honest longbow.  The novel is set in 1357, more than ten years after the superiority of the longbow had been demonstrated at the battle of Crécy. Perhaps the French now used longbows, as well.

Things were, of course, not that straightforward. A crossbow was an expensive weapon and the men who were expert with them were well-rewarded. They were elite troops and no medieval king’s personal retinue was complete without them. Often they were foreign mercenaries, so that they wouldn’t get any ideas about rebelling against the king. Most of the crossbowmen used by English kings came from Gascony, in south-west France. For centuries the kings of England were Gascony’s dukes. Some kings were handy with the crossbow themselves, most notably Richard I, who, somewhat ironically, died as the result of being shot in the shoulder by a crossbow bolt. He was also reputed to be pretty accurate with the longbow.

The production of crossbows was limited to a few towns in Europe, the most famous of which was Genoa. Genoa was famed not only for the crossbows it produced, but also for the mercenaries it exported. These mercenaries were very popular with the kings of France who used them both as crossbowmen and as sailors.

Despite its elite status, the crossbow was easy to use and it did not need much skill or experience to shoot one, although it needed both to shoot one well.  A longbow was a much simpler mechanism, but required practice and skill if it was to be used effectively.

It was only in the fourteenth century that the longbow came into the ascendancy in England. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the crossbow was the main projectile weapon used by English soldiers, but in Wales, the Marches and Ireland the longbow was the preferred weapon. By the end of the thirteenth century it was beginning to predominate in the rest of the kingdom. On the Continent the crossbow continued to be the main weapon.

Using a crossbow was not very demanding physically, but using a longbow was. The crossbow was a machine which could be improved so that it would shoot with greater force or for longer distances, and it would have no impact on the man using it. Even a small improvement to a longbow meant that the archer had to be stronger, and there was a physical limit on this. When the skeletons of archers were discovered in the wreck of the Mary Rose (sunk in the Solent in 1545) they were deformed. Drawing huge bows over a long period of time had damaged their bodies.

Crossbowmen needed a lot of equipment as well as support staff. They had to wear armour, as loading a crossbow took some time, and the soldier was very exposed when he was loading it. Their armour was not necessarily plate armour. Some of them managed with aketons (padded garments), mail coats and bascinets (basic helmets).  They also needed someone to carry and hold their pavise (a large shield protecting the whole body). The man holding the pavise usually carried a spear to protect the crossbowman should the enemy come too close. This meant that they could not change position easily. Archers, on the other hand, wore hardly any armour at all and took cover behind bushes, trees and in ditches.

Crossbow bolts were shorter, thicker and heavier than arrows. This was to enable them to withstand the pressure when they were released. They travelled faster than arrows and could pierce mail.

When Edward III fought the battle of Sluys in 1340 he used both crossbowmen and archers to defeat the French. Six years later he had refined his strategy.

The first real test for the longbow against the crossbow came in August 1346 at the battle of Crécy. Philippe VI employed Genoese mercenaries. As usual, they were sent to face the enemy first and they were cut down by English and Welsh archers. In his account of the battle, written within the two years following it, Villani says that the archers fired three arrows for each bolt shot from a crossbow. Villani was a merchant based in Florence who wrote down information received from merchants who had been in northern France at the time. It is possible that his account is partially based on information from participants in the battle. When they tried to retreat, the Genoese were forced forward, trampled or killed by the cavalry behind them who believed that they had betrayed the French. Two thousand of them died, according to the chroniclers.

There are still arguments today about why the crossbowmen performed so badly. One reason was that their pavises had not arrived at the battlefield, so they were exposed to the arrows, but it’s said that the bolts they fired didn’t even reach the front line of the English army. It seems incredible that professional soldiers should fail in such a simple thing as getting the range right.

Even when the English stopped favouring the crossbow in battle, they still used it in sieges, where the speed with which bolts could be shot did not matter.  Crossbows were useful for both attackers and defenders because of the force and accuracy of the bolts.

A crossbow was also useful in hunting. It could be loaded before the beginning of the hunt so that there would be no noise to alert the hunted animal just before it was fired.

In this video the rates of fire of a crossbow and a longbow are compared.

 

References:

The Great Warbow – Matthew Strickland, Robert Hardy

Edward III and the Triumph of England – Richard Barber

The Battle of Crécy – Andrew Ayton, Philip Preston

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The Medieval Sound of Silence

Troubadours_berlin

One of the things I have to keep reminding myself when I’m writing a novel set in the fourteenth century is how very different things were then. Not just in what people wore, or ate, or how they travelled, but in how they thought and felt. People did not perceive the world around them in the same way that we do.

I’m always reading books about life in the Middle Ages and very frequently I read something that makes me reassess my view of the fourteenth-century man or woman completely. One of those books is The Senses in Late Medieval England by C.M. Woolgar, which I’m reading at the moment. Essentially it does what it says on the tin and the book concerns itself with ideas about touch, sound and hearing, speech, taste, smell and vision in the Middle Ages.  Even the senses they recognised in the fourteenth century were different.

The chapter which has struck me the most (so far) is about sound and hearing. Professor Woolgar points out how very few loud noises there were in the medieval world and how quiet even they were compared to what we hear today.

I was thinking about this as I went for a walk recently. I had my earphones in and was listening to a podcast. It was during the Easter holidays, so there was a fair near part of my walk where loudspeakers were amplifying music and voices. A plane flew overhead. Since I live in a city, my walk included roads, which meant cars were driving past. A neighbour had a window open as I returned home and I could hear the music they were listening to. When I sat down to write this I put an electric kettle on to make a pot of tea.

None of these noises existed in the fourteenth century and most of them are louder than anything someone living then would have heard. The loudest noise a fourteenth-century person might hear was a clap of thunder or a church bell or a waterfall. A small number of men would have heard a cannon, but the cannons used in the first half of the Hundred Years’ War were very small and would not have made much noise. Such noise as they did make, however, would have been disconcerting.

Like most people I’ve been to places where it’s quiet. I’ve walked up mountains and been on long distance footpaths, but I always have to return to the world of noise again. Imagine a world where it’s always that quiet. If you lived in such a world, would you be disturbed or scared if you heard thunder? If you were in a battle, would the screams of men and horses as well as the clash of weapons sound otherworldly and terrifying?

In daily life, even the noises that we think would be loud would not have been terribly loud.  A raucous party would be nothing more than people shouting and singing. If someone was performing a song, his listeners would have to be fairly close to hear any musical accompaniment. A preacher, either in the open air or in church, had nothing more than his own voice with which to gain attention.

The challenge for me now is how to convey the silence of the medieval world in a novel.

 

 

 

 

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Brothers-in-arms

Tomb of Hugh Calveley

Tomb of Hugh Calveley

Men who fought together against a common enemy could become very close. Sometimes they forged partnerships and became brothers-in-arms. Although these relationships were often based on friendships, they could equally be little more than business arrangements. If they were the former, they could last for a long time, if the latter, they could last for the length of a campaign or even a single engagement.

The two men who became brothers-in-arms agreed that they would watch out for one another when they were fighting and provide help and advice when they were not.  The men involved might agree to share the financial gains (or losses) arising from the campaign or engagement.

Some of the relationships between brothers-in-arms were contractual and a contract from 1421 has survived. It was between John Winter and Nicholas Molyneux. The contract sets out the assistance that they were to provide to one another. It also details what the one who remained free should do if one of them was captured. Up to a certain amount of money he was to pay the ransom demanded by the captors. If the ransom was higher than the sum agreed, he was to become the hostage of those who had captured his brother-in-arms so that the latter could go and raise the ransom from his family and friends. If both were captured, one would remain as hostage, while the other raised the ransoms. Essentially they had to do everything they could to secure the other’s release.

Where there was a true bond of friendship between the two men, it was unlikely that the agreement was written down, but the obligations would be similar.

It is believed that there was such an agreement between Edward II and Piers Gaveston. If there was, it would have been very unusual, for brothers-in-arms were supposed to be of equal status.

Hugh Calveley (d.1394) and Robert Knollys (1330 – 1407) were probably brothers-in-arms. Their arms appear on alternating sections of Calveley’s tomb (pictured above). Both were renowned soldiers in the latter half of the fourteenth century. Calveley was more or less a mercenary, joining a free company in the 1360s. He was briefly a brother-in-arms of Bertrand du Guesclin, who later commanded the French army, when both were employed by Enrique de Trastámara. Calveley changed sides when he learned that Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince) was leading an army into Spain to fight against Enrique. Knollys’ history was just as colourful and he was also occasionally a mercenary. He was a man of low birth who rose to a high position and many nobles complained about serving under him. Knollys and Calveley served together on and off during the Hundred Years’ War. Both became wealthy by taking booty and receiving ransoms for men they had captured.

Chaucer presented a fictional view of brothers-in-arms in the Knight’s Tale. This is about Palamon and Arcite, two brothers-in-arms who are captured and kept in prison. They are presented in the tale as the epitome of knighthood and being brothers-in-arms for them is simply a part of being a knight.

 

References:

Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: The English Experience – Michael Prestwich

Knight: The Unofficial Medieval Warrior’s Manual – Michael Prestwich

Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years’ War – Rémy Ambühl

 

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The Weight of Medieval Armour

Morgan_Bible_28r_detail

Following last week’s post about medieval armour there were a few questions in the comments about the weight of the armour worn by the men in the video, so I thought it would be worthwhile doing some research to try to find out how much weight a medieval knight might be carrying when he went into battle.

Discovering the weight of the plate armour itself isn’t a problem. Enough of it has survived from the fifteenth century for us to know what it weighed. Similar sets of armour to those in the video weighed anything from 20 to 30 kilos. That’s just for the plate armour. Underneath a knight would have worn chain mail and padding of some sort.

The chain mail tunic (hauberk if it was long or habergeon if it was short) weighed about 10 kilos. Mail was made up of thousands of interlocking rings made from steel or iron riveted together. The way that the rings were linked made it a very flexible material. Hauberks would have lengths added or taken away depending on the size of the man who had inherited it or purchased it, which meant that the same hauberk could be used over several decades, or even centuries.

Apparently the easiest way to get out of a hauberk was to do a handstand and let it fall off, as illustrated by the picture at the top of the post. Mail could be pierced by arrows or crossbow bolts, so something more substantial was required as bows became more powerful.

Very few examples of fourteenth century armour have survived. Armour was refashioned and reused, so bits of it could still be in use centuries later, but in different forms. Most of what is known about armour from the period has been learned by studying pictures and tomb effigies. One of the difficulties of doing this is illustrated by the picture below. Just what is that knight below wearing under his surcoat (the flowing garment)?

davidisquire

It was difficult to make pieces of metal large enough for armour in the early part of the fourteenth century. Boiled leather (cuir-bouilli) was hard enough to provide some protection, but plate metal was preferred when even small pieces became available.

Eventually, pieces of plate metal could be made large enough to protect the extremities. These pieces of armour did not need to be particularly large. Brassarts covered the arms, poleyns covered the knees, and greaves protected the front of the shins or the whole lower leg. Some knights had a coat of plates, which was a piece of leather or thick cloth onto which iron plates had been riveted. Over all of this a knight wore a surcoat. It often displayed the knight’s arms. By the end of the century the surcoat was no longer worn and had been replaced by the jupon, a more fitted garment.

The Hundred Years’ War accelerated the development of plate armour and knights were soon wearing breastplates and backplates under their surcoats. A backplate was made up of two or more pieces of plate, as was the breastplate.

Going to war was not cheap and armour was often passed down from father to son, or sold. When an army was on campaign it members might be sporting the current fashions in armour, or those from 60 years before, or anything in between, or even a mixture of styles.

Some men wore padded armour (an aketon or a gambeson) under their plate armour. Others wore it over the armour. This gave additional protection against weapons which could pierce armour, but which would be slowed down by the padding.

Bascinet

By the end of the fourteenth century a knight could be almost completely encased in plate armour, with sabatons on his feet, greaves all around his lower leg, poleyns to protect his knees, and a single breastplate with a skirt made from several plates. The cuisses now covered the front and outside of the thighs. The arms were protected by rerebraces at the top and vambraces at the bottom. The hands were covered by gauntlets and the elbows by couters. The spaulder covered the shoulder. A basic bascinet (pictured above) covered the head and an avantail of mail protected the neck.

For those of you who, like me, are now addicted to videos of men in armour doing energetic things, here’s another one, made up of a number of clips. The men in the second clip are wearing armour that’s similar to what was worn in the fourteenth century.

 

References:

Masterpieces of European Arms and Armour in the Wallace Collection – Tobias Capwell

Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: The English Experience – Michael Prestwich

Knight: The Warrior and World of Chivalry – Robert Jones

Knight: The Unofficial Medieval Warrior’s Manual – Michael Prestwich

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Medieval Armour and Mobility

Crécy_-_Grandes_Chroniques_de_France

This is a very short post this week, because I really want to do no more than share the video at the bottom of the page.

Before I saw it I thought medieval knights must have been very clumsy in their armour. I also thought that it would be hard for them to move around. On the other hand, a knight who can’t move is surely a dead knight. It was a conundrum which the video solves.

The men in the video are wearing full armour based on that worn in the fifteenth century. This is a bit later than the period I usually cover, but the video is so good, it’s worth sharing.

Not only does the video show how easily an armoured knight could move, it also shows how much of his body was not covered in armour. Depending on what he was dong, various parts of the body could be horribly exposed, even if it was covered by a gambuson.

I hope you enjoy it.

 

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Lady Day and the Lost Eleven Days

Simone_Martini_and_Lippo_Memmi_-_The_Annunciation_and_Two_Saints_-_WGA15010

I have put off getting to grips with this topic for as long as possible, because it’s complicated, but the time has come to talk about the medieval New Year and why the English tax year begins on 6th April. It was not until I went to work in Germany that I realised that 6th April is an odd day for a tax year to begin. In Germany, and many other countries, it begins on 1st January. There is a reason why it begins on 6th April in England, but, as I said, it’s complicated.

Lady Day, or the Feast of the Annunciation (25th March), was the first day of the year in the Middle Ages. It was the celebration of the day on which the angel told Mary that she was pregnant, nine months before Christmas Day. Everything in the Middle Ages was based around the church calendar and 25th March was a sensible date to choose for the first day of the administrative year. You or I might have chosen the major feasts of Easter or Christmas, but Easter is a movable feast (in that its date changes from year to year), which makes it less than perfect as the beginning of the year. Christmas was such a big celebration that very little work was done. This made it less than suitable for a time requiring a lot of administrative work. The liturgical year began on the first day of Advent, which had much to recommend it, but that was also a date which changed from one year to the next. Lady Day was always on 25th March and was an important feast.

Lady Day and Christmas Day are two of the four quarter days. The others are  Michaelmas, the feast of St Michael and all Angels on 29th September, and Midsummer, on 24th June. Contracts would usually run from one Lady Day to the next. In later centuries the quarter days were hiring days for labourers and the days on which rents were due. They were days of reckoning and debts had to be paid by the end of the quarter. The quarter days were important well into the twentieth century and some rents are still paid on quarter days.

Why does this mean that the English tax year begins on 6th April? This is where things get complicated. In the Middle Ages England used the Julian calendar, which came into use in 45 BC. This calendar had a Leap Year every four years, which meant that, over time, important dates, such as the vernal equinox and the solstices, got out of synch with the reality. Every 128 years the calendar would get out by a day. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar in which there is a Leap Year ninety-seven times in four centuries rather than a hundred. This means that it take more than 3,000 years before the calendar is a day out.

By the time the Gregorian calendar was implemented in England in 1752 there was an eleven-day disparity between the two calendars and 3rd to 13th September did not exist in that year. The calendar went from 2nd to 14th September.

This is why the beginning of the financial year in England is 6th April. It’s not a wholly satisfying solution, until you realise that a tax year has to be 365 (or 366) days. Having a tax year with only  354 days would have caused all kinds of difficulties and arguments.

In the same year that this was introduced 1st January became the official start of the calendar year in England. This had long been the practice in Scotland and other countries. This meant that neither 1751 nor 1752 was a full year in England. In 1751 the calendar year ran from 25th March to 31st December. In 1752 it was from 1st January to 31st December less the eleven days in September. In order for the tax year to be a whole year, it had to run from 25th March 1752 to 5th April 1753.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to discover why those particular eleven days in September were chosen to be deleted. If you know, I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

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Medieval Bread

peasants_breaking_bread

A couple of months ago I touched on bread in the post about peasant food, but it really deserves a post of its own.

Bread was eaten by everyone, but not all bread was the same. Different crops were better suited to different parts of the country and wheat could not be grown everywhere. The other grain crops were rye, oats and barley.

Wheat could only be grown on good soil, so it was usually only the lord of the manor who ate white bread. Maslin was the bread eaten by most people. It was made from wheat and rye flour mixed together. Rye was used on its own to make a darker loaf.  In the cold, wet north and west of England, oats and barley were used to make bread.

The lord’s white bread was called pandemain. This was made from finely ground and sifted wheat flour. Wastel was another white bread. The wheat it was made from was not as finely sifted as that used for pandemain. The last type of white bread was cocket.

As we move through the brown breads the ingredients become increasingly unappetising. Cheat was made from whole wheat from which the bran had been removed. This was still bread for the wealthy. Tourte was made from husk and flour and was probably used for trenchers. Maslin was the next grade. Horse bread was made from any grain at hand and usually included peas and beans. As its name implies, it was intended for horses, but it could be eaten if nothing else was available. Bran bread was made mostly of bran.

Trenchers were slices of stale bread used as plates. Bread was sliced horizontally for this purpose. They were most useful for things like meat, which did not need to be eaten from a bowl. After the meal the trenchers were given to the poor.

Making bread was not a cheap business for ordinary people. The grain had to be grown or purchased. Some peasants would be paid for their labour with grain, some grew their own and some had to buy it. Once harvested or purchased, the grain had to be separated from the chaff then ground. This usually entailed some expenditure. Serfs had to take their grain to their lord’s mill and were fined if they did not. Some tried to use hand querns secretly, but these were slow and inefficient. It was generally better to take the grain to the miller and pay him to grind it.

Once ground, the flour could be made into dough. The yeast and the liquid for the dough usually came from beer. This would either be from a batch of beer that was brewing in the house or from a neighbour’s batch.

Baking the dough usually required another transaction. Few houses possessed an oven and householders who had one charged for its use or sold the bread they made to their neighbours. In some places there might be a communal oven, but using that also meant that money would change hands. A riskier option for those without an oven was to bake the bread in the embers of a fire. The bread had to be turned to make sure that it didn’t burn. Watching the bread and turning it seems to have been a task for men. If you lived in a town where there was a baker, you might not bother making bread at all, but simply go and buy a loaf. Bread prices were fixed by law.

Bread ovens were large and gave off a lot of heat, which is why most people didn’t have one. At the manor house the oven would usually be in a separate building to reduce the risk of burning down the house. A fire was built inside the oven. When the oven was hot enough the wood was raked out and the floor of the oven cleaned as well as possible without losing the heat. This was not easy, as it would have been difficult to get close enough to the oven to do much more than pull out the burning wood.

The bread was put inside the oven to bake, using long-handled paddles. Since the surface on which the bread was baked could never be completely cleaned after the fire had been removed, the bottom of the bread was usually black. This would not have appealed to the lord of the manor, so the bottom of the bread was sliced off to be eaten by the lowlier members of the household and the lord ate the upper crust, hence the eventual use of that expression to refer to those of high social standing.

For the poor, grain was more likely to be used in pottage rather than in bread. Pottage was much cheaper to make and used less grain. Bread was useful if someone was in the fields all day and needed to take something with them to eat.

This post was inspired by the cartoon antics of bread detective Ray Wry created by Clare Scott. That’s bread detective as in he’s a detective made out of bread. Thanks are also due to Ellen Hawley, from Notes from the UK, for drawing my attention to the origin of ‘upper crust’.

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