The Medieval Sound of Silence


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.






Filed under Fourteenth Century

26 responses to “The Medieval Sound of Silence

  1. Interesting post. The movie “Birdsong” has a moment of silence when the characters are deafened by a cannon. Initially, they tried it as a silent shot but ended up using the sound of falling dirt–a tiny sound that made the audience hear the silence. It was surprisingly, counter-intuitively effective. For whatever that thought is worth.

    I remember a history professor saying that the American midwestern settlers in the nineteenth century had only the music they made themselves. It’s an obvious point (once she’d said it, although not before), but one that’s stayed with me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ironically, Birdsong is a book I associate with silence. I was reading one of the very loud passages and got so wrapped up in the noise that I was shocked by the quiet around me when I looked up.

      Once you know how quiet the past (mostly) was, I don’t think you can forget it

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Terry Tyler

    Good article, April! I’m currently writing a post apocalyptic novel, so have been thinking about similar things. In it, the heroine makes occasional parallels with the medieval world. I assume you’ve read the Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England??!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Its fascinating isnt it…trying to imagine what it was like back then..we can recreate the buildings and style of clothing, all the visual things I suppose but there are other things we miss. I remember once reading a left from someone 150 years back who was writing from a new job in America (I think). She wrote that the people there had to be warm all the time and every part of their bodies had to be warm…she sounded amazed…and it struck me that people used to be cold and used to be used to it!…..I must get a hold of that book it sounds interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do sometimes think about how cold people must have been in the fourteenth century. They wore more clothes in winter, but they didn’t have many clothes. If clothes got wet, they took forever to dry. I can just about remember life before central heating, but even then we could have a fire in any room in the house. You could really only have a fire in the hall until fairly late in the fourteenth century. I think that’s right. I’d have to check to know exactly when fireplaces were built in other parts of houses.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Ina Dau

    Hi April,
    what about the blacksmith, stone mason and the carpenter, horses and cattle and carts with heavy wheels on cobblestone?
    I don’t believe a medieval town or village was that quiet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ina, yes, blacksmiths and stonemasons would have made a bit of noise, but not much when you compare it to the noise made by a car engine or a train. There weren’t any cobblestones in the fourteenth century. Roads weren’t paved until the following century.

      There would have been noise, but few noises would have been very loud. And there would have been no constant background noise of traffic as we have in so many places today.


  5. Pingback: Suggestion Saturday: April 29, 2017 | Lydia Schoch

  6. Yes! I’m always amused by modern “historical” movies that show everyone running around town yelling. Why?

    Venice, at night, is still remarkably quiet – no traffic. The world was once very quiet indeed. And the stars were brilliant, because there was no night light on earth to compete with them.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m now very aware of the hum from my heater! C M Woolgar’s book sounds fascinating. I’ve added it to my “to read” list.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Excellent post. My first thought was all the chatter at fairs and markets you hear in films set in the period but that’s the sort of noise that’s eternal. The rest of it, you do have to think and anything loud then would’ve been on a different scale. And we’re so used to constant noise now, if quiet.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Telling The Time In the Middle Ages | A Writer's Perspective

  10. I don’t think people lived long enough back then to get a ‘natural’ hearing loss (around the age of 70) but in our noisy world hearing loss begins much sooner, even everyday ‘quiet’ noise has in impact. Their hearing must have been really good back then!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Fascinating post. We live here in Gutenberg land in a medieval town- the main corner is Dante and Cathedral, and it was very very quiet in the old part of town until the idiots in Frankfurt started sending planes over us at two to five in the morning. Oh, for the good old days. By the way, do you know about the Creative Anacronism groups- periodic exact reenactment, started by the science fiction writer Frederic Pohl? Great fun. And always some very good experts. But also the just for fun group, so maybe perhaps a bit amaturish sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. elizabethlux

    Let me know if you figure out how to write that silence

    Liked by 1 person

Please join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s