Old Sarum Revisited

The castle from the cathedral, Old Sarum

A few weeks ago I visited my first English Heritage site since covid arrived here. It was Old Sarum and I was attending an event put on by English Heritage for members. It wasn’t exactly a guided tour, but an expert member of staff took us to various places on the ramparts while talking about the history of the site in chronological order. Since it was originally an Iron Age fort that was later occupied by the Romans and then, possibly, the Saxons, it took a while to get to the part that really interested me. This isn’t to say that the stuff about the Ancient Britons and Romans wasn’t interesting, it was, but I had come to learn more about the medieval castle.

The day was gloriously sunny, if somewhat windy, and it was wonderful to find out a bit more about Old Sarum, described by English Heritage as ‘one of the most enthralling historic sites in southern England’. This is an interesting claim, given that Stonehenge is, literally, only a few miles up the road.

So, what did I learn about the things I was most interested in: the medieval castle and cathedral? The first was that a tunnel had been built under the outer bailey and the ramparts in the Middle Ages which probably led to a sally port on the other side of the ramparts. What, you might be asking, is a sally port? It was a small, fortified door, probably well-hidden. In this instance the tunnel leads north to Salisbury Plain. Our guide informed us that this was probably where a besieging army would camp. The sally port would allow the defenders of a castle to leave it, probably under cover of darkness, and harass the besiegers. I suspect that they might also have used it to send for help. I had heard of sally ports before, but had no idea how they might work. In other castles the sally port was at the least defensible part of the castle. This would enable the defenders to surprise the attackers and deter them from focusing on that area. The castle at Old Sarum was never besieged, so the sally port, if there was one, was never used in a desperate situation.

Probably my favourite new fact from the day is that the ramparts, being made of compacted chalk, would have been white when they were first restored in the Middle Ages and the outer walls of the castle were whitewashed. Forget the grey blobs of stone that we see on the tops of hills these days; the builders of these castles wanted to make a statement. Old Sarum was built by William the Conqueror very shortly after he arrived in England and he wanted the Saxons to know that he was in charge. A white castle on top of a white hill would have given exactly that message. It was still white a century or so later when relations between the castle and the cathedral had broken down. One of a long list of complaints that the monks sent to the pope was that the castle and its hill were so white that it blinded them to look at it. Not long after this a new cathedral was built a few miles away in what is now Salisbury.

The final thing I learned was that there were probably only about twenty soldiers at Old Sarum, castles being built so that you didn’t need lots of defenders. I think this must have been the number when the king wasn’t in residence, but it does seem a small number for what is a very large site. The hill on which the castle sits is very steep, however, and I for one would not like to try to climb up it whilst arrows and other things were being launched at me from above. Perhaps it would only have taken twenty men to protect it after all

Sources:
Old Sarum by John McNeill
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams

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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Knight’s Fee

I’ve often come across the term ‘knight’s fee’ in my reading and not known what it meant, so this week I decided to do some reading in order to find out. You’re probably already wondering how the picture of peasants working in a field above has anything to do with knights. I hope all will become clear.

Knight’s fee is a term that applied mainly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and was the amount of land that came with the obligation of military service. All land in England was held, in theory at least, by the king. William the Conqueror gave large chunks of it to his tenants-in-chief in return for military service. The tenants-in-chief, in turn, gave bits of land to men further down the chain who owed them military service. This obligation was inherited and confirmed by their descendants. The military service was up to forty days a year, which is why you’ll occasionally read about men returning home on the forty-first day. This service was unpaid. It was, of course, the king’s option to pay for more. The knight wasn’t obligated to accept, but it probably wasn’t a wise move to turn the king down.

These knights should not be thought of in the same way as the knights who trained for war since childhood and went off to fight in armour on the backs of magnificent horses, although some of them were that sort of knight. Many of them turned down the opportunity to become a knight of this kind, as the costs were too high. They were, rather, the lowest level of the landholding classes and were sometimes not much wealthier than the peasants who worked their land.

These men usually had one manor from which they had to raise enough money to look after their family and meet their military obligation. Fairly quickly this requirement to go to war themselves was replaced by a tax or fine known as scutage. Henry II collected it as a tax every four years; under other kings it was simply a way in which the landowner could pay for a knight to fight in his stead, either by hiring a knight himself or paying the money to the king.. These men would not all have been trained knights, so paying the king so that he could employ trained soldiers was probably a good option for many of them.

Even in the twelfth century there was no realistic expectation that the tenants-in-chief would be able to call on as many knights as their landholdings indicated should be available. The knights themselves must rarely have performed military service as they might have been too old, too young, too ill or disabled. Scutage, the tax or fine, allowed them to pay for someone else to go in their place.

Towards the end of the twelfth century the size of a manor sufficient to require a knight’s fee was five hides. A hide was generally considered to be 120 acres, but in this context it was usually understood as an amount of money rather than the size of the land itself. A hide was the area that would support a family for a year or that could be ploughed by a team of eight oxen. Both measures would indicate different amounts of land in different parts of the country, since a family could live for a year on a smaller piece of land in an area where the soil was good than they could where it was poor. The hide was a taxation tool more than anything else.

Around 1300 there were about 1,100 to 1,500 knights who technically owed the knight’s fee. By the start of the Hundred Years War in 1327 the vast majority of soldiers, including knights, were paid. In 1352 Edward III stopped trying to call men for their obligatory service and all soldiers who served thereafter were paid.

Sources:
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The English Manor by Mark Bailey
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer

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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Medieval Livery

The French attempt to recapture Calais

These days we think of livery as clothing that identifies a group of people as belonging together, both in colour and design. It has its origins in the custom of a medieval lord giving food and clothing to the people who served him. Clothes would have been given once a year and wine probably at Christmas, as well as food at various times of the year.

After a time, ‘livery’ came to signify just the clothing itself and not the food. Originally the colours were russet or blue, but, after a while, the clothes became part of an identification system at courts across Europe. Clerks wore blue, knights green and squires stripes. Household servants also wore stripes. It wasn’t just lords who did this; guilds also had their own liveries to identify their members.

Wearing a man’s livery meant that you were under his protection. With greater lords, the livery included their heraldic colours, which made it easy to identify their retainers. This was both a blessing and a curse, as it meant that most people were less likely to antagonise them, although it also made them the target of the retinue of a lord who might not be on the best of terms with their lord. It also meant that they were also easily recognisable if they committed a crime whilst wearing their livery. For the lord himself there were also benefits. The more men a lord had dressed in his livery, the more powerful, important and wealthy he seemed to everyone else.

Liveried retainers must often have committed crimes or caused problems, for Parliament tried on several occasions to introduce laws in order to have more control over them during the reign of Richard II. John of Gaunt argued, however, that dealing with a lack of discipline in his household was the responsibility of the lord and not the courts.

Chaucer, as a member first of the household of the Countess of Ulster and then of her husband, Lionel of Antwerp, would have worn livery and there are records of sums of money being given to him to buy clothes.

The idea of livery also carried over to the army, where each lord had his own retinue of soldiers. In 1346 the Welsh soldiers in the retinue of Edward, Prince of Wales, wore a short white coat with a hood.

Sources:
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 ed. W. Mark Ormrod and Rosemary Horrox
Henry of Lancaster’s Expedition to Aquitaine by Nicholas A. Gribit

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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Medieval Routiers

I’ve written about mercenaries and condottieri before, but there’s another name for them. This time it’s French: routiers.

Routiers were rarely French, though. It was just one of the names that the French gave them. Like all bands of mercenaries, though, the ruta (band of routiers) tended to be made up of men from many different countries. Some of them were outlaws, others defrocked priests, and yet others were adventurers. Overall they were simply men who would not do well in the ‘normal’ civilian world.

Routiers were paid to fight the enemies of the people who paid them, but they could be, and were, distracted by targets that looked more profitable. As a group, they were impossible to control and their method of fighting was simply to pillage and destroy, usually against those who were undefended.

They were mostly recruited from the Low Countries (Flanders, Hainault, Brabant, Luxemburg). For this reason they were also known as Brabanters. They were so terrifying that they were condemned at the third Lateran Council in 1179. I’m fairly certain it made no difference to them at all, although it might have worried some of their employers.

Although routiers operated mostly in the twelfth century, the term was also used later to describe bands of roaming soldiers during the early part of the Hundred Years War. The French they were terrorising, however, just as often referred to them as ‘English’. To be fair, they were mostly wrong about this, although there were some short periods when English soldiers did use these tactics.

Mostly these routiers were Gascon soldiers who had been released during a period of truce, or who had discovered that they could make a lot of money by terrorising the local inhabitants when they formed part of the garrison of a captured castle, a practice that led to many men leaving France much wealthier than when they had arrived.

Sources:
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Trial by Fire by Jon than 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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Saint Ursula

Last week I mentioned the legends of St. Ursula and presented the rather scary picture above of her martyrdom along with that of the 1,000 virgins travelling with her. Since there were some questions, I thought I’d tell her story, or one of them, for there are many.

This, I think, might be the most complete version of the story. Ursula was the daughter of a king of Brittany (presumably in the third century, but possibly earlier). Both were Christians. A pagan king of England wanted her to marry his son, Conon. Ursula, not wanting to marry a pagan, insisted on some conditions. Conon would have to be baptised a Christian and go with her on a pilgrimage to Rome. For the journey, she would be given ten virgins as companions and each of them would have a thousand virgin attendants. Somewhat surprisingly, the English king and his son were able to meet these conditions and Ursula and her husband-to-be set off for Rome with their virgin companions.

They sailed along the Rhine, disembarking at Cologne and Basle. In Rome Pope Ciriacus (a late third-century pope) baptised Conon, who chose the name Etherius. The pope decided to return with them, but when they arrived at Cologne, it was being besieged by the Huns. These killed Etherius and, having failed to rape them, the virgin attendants. No mention is made of what happened to the pope, but his own story says that he was martyred around 303 just outside Rome. The leader of the Huns proposed marriage to Ursula and was refused. She was then shot with an arrow.

Yes, it doesn’t make much sense. It makes even less sense when you read that the whole thing grew out of a Latin inscription found in the church of St. Ursula in Cologne around 400. All that the inscription said was that a man named Clematius had restored a ruined church in dedication to some local virgin martyrs. There was nothing about who they were nor how they died.

Over the centuries embellishments were added and there’s one version of the story that has Ursula as a Cornish princess who sailed to Brittany to be married with 11,000 maidens and 60,000 serving women.

As a saint she was very popular in the area around Cologne; Northern France; what is now Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg; and Venice. Considering her supposed connection to England, she wasn’t at all popular here. One of my sources tells me that only two churches were dedicated to her in the early Middle Ages.

In 1969 the calendar of saints in the Roman Catholic church was reformed and saints for whom there was no real evidence that they had ever existed were dropped. St Ursula was one of them.

I don’t want you to think that I’m mocking the idea of virgin martyrs; I’m not. The ease with which Ursula’s story was created and embellished is a testament to how many young Christian women (and men) were martyred for their refusal to conform to the pagan world in which they lived. The names of the women martyred in Cologne are unknown, but their memory lives on in Ursula’s legends.

Sources:
Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Hugh Farmer
Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art by James Hall

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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Ermine

Last week, in a post about warrens, I wrote that the white belly-fur of a rabbit was prized because it looked like ermine from a distance. What, though, apart from being a fur used by royalty and nobles to trim their clothes, was ermine?

It comes from the stoat, whose fur changes colour over the course of the year from reddish-brown in summer to white (save for the black tip of the tail) in winter. In England its use was restricted by law to royalty and nobility, hence the frequent use of the much less expensive rabbit fur. The black tips of the tails were arranged at regular intervals to make a pattern.

Stoats are not very big, so you needed a lot to make even a piece of trimming. In 1347 Pope Clement VI ordered 430 ermine skins for a cape for himself, 310 skins for a mantle (a sleeveless cape usually worn by women) and 362 for five hoods. That’s over a thousand stoats for one man in one year.

The furs came from northern and eastern Russia, via the Black Sea, and they were packed in barrels for the voyage. Since the furs weren’t prepared beforehand, they must have been terribly smelly when the lids were taken off.

Ermine was also an heraldic term. It meant black spots in any pattern on a white background, as in the arms of the dukes of Brittany in the photograph at the top of the post.

In art it was a symbol of chastity, particularly when used in the depiction of virgin saints. It can be seen in this sixteenth-century portrait of St. Ursula. According to many of the legends about her, she had the right to wear it on two counts, being both a daughter of the duke of Brittany and a virgin saint.

By Jean Bourdichon XVIe – http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b52500984v/f407.item.r=Grandes%20Heures%20d%27Anne%20de%20Bretagne, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32449672

Sources:
Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Medieval Hunting by Richard Almond
Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art by James Hall
Power and Profit by Peter Spofford

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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Medieval Warrens

When I was a child, we used to eat rabbit quite a bit, as it was cheap, being plentiful. Rabbits were so abundant that they were considered a pest and, in the 1950s, they were culled with myxomatosis. Not only did this make rabbits unfit for human consumption, but it also wiped out 99% of the rabbit population in England. They’ve made a comeback and rabbit meat, so I’m told, is trendy. I’m a vegetarian now, so I don’t know.

Until fairly recently, I assumed that rabbits had always been in England, but it turns out that, like many other things, they were introduced by the Normans and have been here less than a thousand years.

Rabbits, known as coneys or conyngs, were reared in warrens. In the Middle Ages this just meant land set aside for rearing small game. It was only later that it only referred to rabbits.

As with other game, only a small number of people had the right to hunt rabbits. Free warren was the right to hunt small game (which included rabbits and hares) and it could only be awarded by the king. Having a warren on your land was a privilege and also indicated to people around you that you were important. Status was everything in fourteenth-century England.

As well as providing food, rabbits were bred for their fur. Both could be very profitable to a lord of the manor who had the right to breed them. Free warren usually belonged to the person on whose land the warren was, but it could also be leased out to other people, which could cause problems, as we shall see later.

Rabbits didn’t do well in England to start with. They didn’t spread beyond the managed warrens for centuries, but when they did breed in the wild, they became a pest, hence the myxomatosis. They were despised as an animal to be hunted, but peasants hunted them anyway, since meat was meat. The most common technique was to send a ferret into the warren to chase the rabbits out into nets held by the hunters. The ferrets were muzzled so that they didn’t eat the rabbits themselves. In some parts of the country, ferrets were hired out to poachers of rabbits.

Ferreting wasn’t the only method used to catch rabbits. Smoke was also popular. What can only be described as a smoke bomb was made of yellow arsenic, sulphur and myrrh. It was set alight and dropped into the burrow. The escaping rabbits ran into the waiting nets. A less sophisticated method involved lighting a fire at a main entrance to the burrow. Spaniels were also used to chase rabbits into the nets.

Many lords of the manor employed warreners, who were very well paid, to look after the rabbits. Poaching them became so lucrative that organised gangs got involved A warrener’s life was a dangerous one. Warrens were usually far from any villages on the manor, so the warrener was on his own.

The gangs were mostly led by members of the gentry. The Coterell brothers and the Folvilles were involved in poaching. The poaching itself was probably carried out under their direction by peasants, possibly because they were poor or had a grudge against the owner of the warren. Some of the men caught poaching claimed that they were the ones who really had the right to hunt there and that might often have been true, as warrens were sometimes leased out, and who had the right to do what could sometimes be obscure.

The fourteenth century was a time of social mobility and rabbit fur was very popular among people who wanted to climb higher. The white belly-fur of a rabbit could be taken, at a distance, for ermine, used by those at the top of the ladder. It was known as miniver, although the term included any non-specific white fur. You can see why having a rabbit warren could be very lucrative and why gangs of poachers might be interested in them. In an attempt to ensure that everyone knew their place, a series of sumptuary laws were made in the second half of the fourteenth century. The one in 1363 said that wives and daughters of esquires could wear miniver if the squire had an income of more than 200 marks (£133 6s 8d).

Rabbits could be hunted all year round. My favourite writer about hunting, John Cummins, writes dismissively, “The warren falls more into the field of livestock husbandry than hunting” and I think I agree with him. Worse, rabbits could also be a distraction to hunting dogs, causing them to chase after the rabbit rather than continue following the scent of the animal they were tracking.

Rather shamefully, I’d almost got to the end of this post before I remembered that there’s a part of Southampton not far from where I live called Shirley Warren. Sure enough, it turned out that this used to be the free warren of the lords of Shirley manor. It’s a long, thin strip of land with a stream in a narrow valley with fairly steep sides. These days it’s full of houses, a hospital and a cemetery. For my UK readers, Benny Hill is buried in the cemetery.

Sources:
Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
The English Manor by Mark Bailey
Medieval Hunting by Richard Almond
Hawk and Hound by John Cummins

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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Medieval Anchorites and Anchoresses

By Unknown artist of the 14th or 15th century. – Detail from MS 079: Pontifical held at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74637745

Last week we looked at religious hermits, who were allowed to leave the places in which they were based. Today we’re looking at anchorites and anchoresses, who were not allowed to wander; they had a fixed place where they lived and had to stay. When I write ‘anchorite’ in this post I also mean ‘anchoress’. I’m just too lazy to type both every time. When I write ‘anchoress’, though, I don’t also mean ‘anchorite’.

Anchorites were also known as recluses. Sometimes they were literally walled in and were not able to leave their cell. They had to have the permission of their bishop for this and he would officiate at a service, similar to the one for lepers entering a lazar house, during which they renounced the world. For both lepers and anchorites it symbolised that they were dead to the world and everyone in it.

To be walled up meant that there was no way in or out of the cell, only windows which looked out onto different parts of their, very small, world. The bishop was involved because he had to be satisfied that the anchorite’s character was such that he could survive spiritually and physically. Anchorages were usually attached to a parish church in a town, which meant that there were people around to look after them. Anchorites had one or two servants. One of them was for errands and one for protection. I’m not quite sure how that worked for anchoresses. Mother Julian of Norwich, for example, had two women, Alice and Sara. We’ll come on to Mother Julian in a moment.

A cell usually had three windows, an altar, a bed and a crucifix. Through one window the anchorite could see the altar of the church to which the cell was attached. Through the second window the servant passed food. This window connected to the servant’s quarters. Only one window looked onto the outside world. This was the parlour window (the smallest) and the anchorite could speak to visitors through it. It was small so that the anchorite could see very little and thus not be tempted by the outside world.

The three elements of the anchorite’s life were silence, prayer and mortification. In this instance, mortification means the subduing of the body’s desires. These might be for food, comfort, alcohol, sex or movement in the outside world. The requirement for silence wasn’t absolute, since the anchorite could speak to visitors and the servants. It was mental and spiritual detachment that were important rather than physical isolation.

Like the hermits who lived in their cells in a monastery, there was a sense of community among anchorites. Their servants carried verbal messages between them, so these were clearly not long and involved communications.

One of the earliest books written in English, the Ancrene Riwle, was written for anchoresses. It was written for three sisters and set out a rule of behaviour for anchoresses who were not attached to any particular order.

Probably the most famous English anchoress of the fourteenth century was Mother Julian of Norwich. She was the first woman to write a book in English. I have to add, that we know about, since books are such fragile things and someone else could have written a book that has since been lost or destroyed. Her book was Revelations of Divine Love, which was about some visions she had in 1373. All but one of them took place in a single night. She wrote them down and spent the next twenty years meditating on them. Her cell was attached to Saint Julian’s church in Norwich, and it’s possible that she took her name from the church. It’s just as likely, though, that it was her own name, since it was a common name for women at the time. Very little is known about her apart from what is in her book and what Margery Kempe included in her own writings about a visit she made to Julian.

Anchorites either had to have enough wealth to pay their own expenses or have someone who paid for them. Edward of Woodstock, later known as the Black Prince, supported an anchorite in Cornwall, of which he was the duke, who said masses for Edward’s ancestors.

Sources:
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Social History of England 1200 – 1500 ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar

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:

Amazon

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Medieval Hermits

I promised you a post about hermits and here it is. Monasteries had their origins in the practice of Christians from the third century on of going out into the deserts of Egypt and what is now Israel to be alone with God, among them St. Jerome, pictured above.

In the sixth century Saint Benedict created the first monastery as we would recognise it so that people could live a solitary life, but in community, which sounds a bit of a contradiction in terms, but made sense to him and to the people who gathered together in response to what he was doing. ‘Monk’ is derived from the Greek ‘monos’ which means alone. In the eleventh century a revival in eremitism started in Italy which spread across Europe and there were still many hermits in England in the fourteenth century. In some ways it was, by then, seen as a revolution against monasticism, although it was usual in most Benedictine monasteries for there to be two or three hermits associated with the monastery.

Hermits were allowed to leave their hermitages which were usually caves or hovels, but recluses (anchorites and anchoresses) were not. We’ll come on to them next week. Hovel is not necessarily a pejorative term. It just means a hut or small cottage. Living in caves seems dreadful to our modern sensibilities, but people were living in caves in England well into the twentieth century. They only became unfeasible when most homes had electricity, running water and gas. Not all hermitages were small, however, some were quite substantial outposts of a monastery containing chapels and accommodation for travellers

Generally hermits could go where they liked, but their ability to wander was eventually seen as a threat to the stability of the church. Hermitages began to be placed under the supervision of a nearby monastery or bishop in order to maintain some kind of control over where they went and what they did. In 1389 a law was passed stating that hermits had to have letters of accreditation from their bishops in order to prove that they weren’t vagrants. According to the writer, William Langland, there were men who thought their lives would be easier if they pretended to be hermits. I’m not sure what their lives were like if they thought a hermit’s life was better, since the hermit was supposed to renounce the world and be a servant to everyone.

They wore special clothes: a brown habit and white scapular. A scapular is a short cloak that covers the shoulders. This clothing was blessed by a bishop when a man became a hermit. It served two purposes. It was plain, which demonstrated the hermit’s lack of vanity and it also symbolised his rejection of family and society.

Hermits were supposed to provide hospitality to visitors. Their lives were about public service and they could work as guides, ferrymen and river pilots. It was also common for them to earn their keep by repairing roads or bridges.

Hermitages were usually found near these bridges, ferries, fords and causeways and where roads went into a dangerous or unwelcoming area. This goes some way to explaining why so many hermits appear in medieval romances, that is novels in the form of poetry. They usually help the knight with his quest. Knights in romances were always on a quest for one thing or another.

Some fourteenth-century hermits expressed themselves in their writing. Richard Rolle was a hermit in Yorkshire and he wrote commentaries on the Bible as well as devotional lyrics in both Latin and English. A lot of what he wrote was for women recluses (anchoresses). Despite this, he was read by both clerics and lay people.

We’ve seen before that there was a lot of lay interest in the religious life. This was tempered by dissatisfaction with what the church could provide in terms of the spiritual life for people who could not become monks, nuns or priests. Walter Hilton was another hermit and he wrote a book about how lay people could accommodate their desire for spiritual contemplation with the necessities of their secular lives.

Although being a hermit was considered by some to be the pinnacle of monastic life, requiring years of preparation, some lay people showed such an aptitude for it that they were allowed to become hermits by their local bishop.

Sources:
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Social History of England 1200 – 1500 ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Medieval Monasticism by C. H. Lawrence

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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Medieval Woods

This is a bit by way of being a companion piece to the post I wrote about forests a couple of weeks ago. Those of you who read it will already know that a wood was not a small forest. Unlike a forest, it did have to have trees and lots of them.

I was surprised to read in my sources that England was not as wooded as I had always been told as a teenager that it was in the Middle Ages. There was a picture in my head of a country so densely wooded that it was difficult to travel from one place to another for all the trees in the way. Not only had woods been supplying fuel and timber for centuries, but they had also been cut down to provide more farming land. It could almost be said that there was a shortage of trees by the fourteenth century.

Like everything else, woods were technically the property of the king. In practice they belonged to the lords of the manor, who used them for their own benefit. Wood was a precious resource, used for timber and fuel: for cooking, heat and smithies. In the fourteenth century, coal wasn’t a widespread source of fuel, although it was used in those places where it was easily accessible. In some parts of the country peat was used.

Woods had to be managed carefully to ensure that the lord of the manor and his heirs received the maximum benefit from them. Only they had the right to fell trees and sell them. Tenants, villeins and serfs on the manor might have other rights in a wood, though.

Oak, ash and beech were the most common trees. All were useful, but the oak and the beech also provided acorns and beechmast in the autumn and these were eaten by pigs. Almost everyone owned at least one pig and they would usually have the right of pannage, which meant that their pigs could forage in the wood during the autumn. On some manors this was a right that was enshrined in the by-laws of the manor, on others the tenants, villeins and serfs had to pay for the right.

Other rights included cablish, which was the right to collect branches that had been blown down for firewood. Housebote and haybote were the rights that allowed tenants to take timber to keep their houses and fencing in good order. As you might imagine, all these rights were open to abuse.

Given the value of a wood, they were not allowed to go wild. They were managed by woodwards. One way of managing a wood was to coppice it. This meant cutting a wood on rotation so that new growth in one place was cut every few years. This new growth was used for fuel and fencing. Larger trees were allowed to grow to be harvested as timber. Woodlands tended to be quite open, as the pigs’ foraging prevented new growth. As well as looking after the coppicing, another of the woodward’s duties was to ensure that no one took something from the wood to which they were not entitled. That must have been a difficult task.

Wood was a very precious resource and London needed a lot of woods around it to provide timber for building. There were probably the most intensively managed in the country.

Medieval society used a lot of wood. Timber was used for houses and boats and ships. It was used to make tools and weapons. Tables, stools, carts, ploughs, bowls, cups, chests and pattens were all made from wood. Some wood was used to make charcoal or potash, both of which were used in medieval industries. Charcoal was used wherever a lot of heat was required, such as a forge. Potash was used to bleach fabric and to make soap. Everyone used wood one way or another.

Sources:
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer
The English Manor by Mark Bailey
A Social History of England 1200 to 1500 ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

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

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