At this time of year those of us who have a sedentary lifestyle tend to think about a new exercise regime, but that kind of thing was really unnecessary in the fourteenth century. Life then was very labour-intensive, even if you were the king.
There were a few labour-saving devices, but not many. There were horses and oxen to carry people and pull ploughs and carts, although most people had to walk everywhere. There were windmills and watermills to grind grain and there were, if you were lucky, carts, boats and ships to carry things. If you were unlucky, you had to carry everything yourself. There were pulleys to raise objects from a ship to a quayside or from the ground to the top of a building, but these were usually powered by men.
Apart from those few examples of mechanisation, everything that had to be done required physical labour. Seed did not sow itself, nor did weeds dig themselves up. Meals were made from scratch, which meant, for most people, growing food or catching it and killing it themselves. Houses were swept with a broom, dough was kneaded by hand, and the washing of clothes was done by hand, in water that had to be fetched and heated first. In many places water had to be fetched from a well or river and they might not be very close to the place where the washing was to be done. Parishioners also had to stand in church, which meant there was very little chance of dozing during the sermon. There were no sewing machines, so every piece of clothing had to be stitched by hand. If you were a potter you had to turn the wheel on which the pot rested, with your feet, with your hands or with a long stick.
The only people who can be said to have ‘exercised’ were soldiers, who trained most days. They wrestled, practised swordplay, improved their accuracy with a lance whilst on horseback, ran, jumped and climbed so that they would be able to fight their enemies.
Monks who copied books were really the only ones who could be considered to live a sedentary lifestyle, but even they were supposed to do physical work when they were not copying.
If you were a member of a noble’s household, you still did not get to sit down very often, probably only at meals. There would be chairs in the lord’s solar, but only for him and his wife and important visitors. Others might have stools, if they were lucky, otherwise they stood while attending him. Servants, of course, sat only while they ate, or if they could find a few moments when they weren’t supposed to be doing something else.
Even the king spent much of his life in the saddle as the court moved from place to place or he led his army to war. He sat while others stood, but nonetheless could not be said to have had a sedentary lifestyle.