Category Archives: Fourteenth Century

Things I’ve Learned From The Canterbury Tales Part One

Canterbury Tales

When I started reading The Canterbury Tales I guessed that I would come across a few things I didn’t already know about the fourteenth century. This has proven to be the case,  even within the first few pages, but some of the things I’ve learned aren’t really enough to sustain a whole post. I thought, therefore, that I would do a series of ‘pick and mix’ posts as things arise. There is nothing to link the things I’m writing about, other than that I came across them in The Canterbury Tales and found them interesting

One of the pilgrims going to Canterbury is a friar. In his description in the General Prologue, Chaucer tells us that the friar keeps knives and pins in his long sleeves to give to women. This came as a bit of a shock to me. Aside from sounding rather dangerous, why was the friar giving things to women? The notes came to my aid here and it turns out that friars, who travelled from place to place preaching and begging for alms, were ideally placed to be pedlars. The friar carried his wares in his sleeves and was always ready to make a sale. Chaucer tells his readers that he made a fair amount of money in this trade. He gives the impression that he doesn’t think this is a good thing.

The friar also participated in ‘love days’. They’re not what you’re thinking. Instead, they were meetings between the parties to a dispute who wanted to reach a settlement out of court. Sometimes this was with the aim of avoiding going to court at all, and sometimes the love day took place after those involved had appeared in court but before a judgement had been made. The friar was an arbiter, putting him in a position where he could receive bribes if he wished, and we assume that he did so wish. Chaucer doesn’t have a very high opinion of his friar. Perhaps he had suffered at the hands of friars at love days. Chaucer made a bit of a habit of being in debt in later life and there are records of cases against him seeking repayment. Some of those cases would have been settled at a love day and not always in his favour.

Sources:
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer edited by Jill Mann
The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall

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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The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall – A Review

Chaucer life

Pages: 380
Published: 1992

More Chaucer this week. This time it’s the man himself rather than his work. The last time I wrote about his life on this blog (towards the end of 2018), Toutparmoi mentioned The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall, so I bought a copy, and it has proven to be a good purchase. It was published almost thirty years ago, so there is a chance that some of what it contains has been superseded by more recent research.

The book’s subtitle is A Critical Biography and that’s the part that I found least pleasing. Pearsall ties what is known of Chaucer’s life to the supposed dates of his works. I say ‘supposed’, because no one really knows when he wrote which works. Some can be narrowed down to a decade or so, and The Book of the Duchess must have been written after the death of Blanche of Lancaster, the duchess it celebrates. There are some clues, but few of them clear cut.

Since I’ve only read one of Chaucer’s poems, these sections of the book meant nothing to me. The discussions about various interpretations of the actions of different characters, particularly in The Canterbury Tales, must be engaging if you’re familiar with them, but I’m not.

There are surprisingly few records of Chaucer’s life. Most of them are about annuities given to him, or expenses for clothing for special occasions while he was in service to various royal households. Some relate to court cases against him for debt and one for rape. This last raises all kinds of questions about Chaucer, but Pearsall offers no definitive answer, which is quite correct of him, given the impossibility of obtaining any of the facts, let alone all of them after more than six centuries.

Pearsall is very good at putting what is known (and sometimes what isn’t known) about Chaucer into context. There’s no information about Chaucer’s education, so Pearsall doesn’t jump to conclusions about his schooling, but describes the kind of education a boy of Chaucer’s class would have had. He does something similar at other points in the book.

The picture Pearsall paints of Chaucer is, of necessity, superficial. It’s also surprisingly unattractive. It’s hard to reconcile the (possible) rapist and constant debtor with the trusted servant of royalty and creator of some of the best poetry written in the Middle Ages.

I think Pearsall’s ideal reader is someone who has read all of Chaucer’s works, is interested in the fourteenth century in general and in Chaucer’s life in particular, in that order. Since I only fall into the last two categories, I don’t feel that I’ve reaped the full benefit of reading this book. Despite that, I’ve learned a lot from it.

 

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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What Did Pardoners and Summoners Do?

Canterbury Tales

Can you tell that I’ve finally started reading The Canterbury Tales? I’m reading it in Middle English, because I like doing things that are difficult. To be honest, it’s not that hard to get an idea of what’s going on, but you do need the vocabulary to understand the detail. Fortunately, the Penguin edition that I’m using has both a very good glossary and extensive notes. It’s a huge book, though, so it will take me a while to get through it.

I’ve only read a few pages so far, but I already have some questions that aren’t answered for me in the notes. To be fair, they might be answered later, but I’m beginning to suspect they might not be. This post will be the first in an occasional series about things relating to The Canterbury Tales. They might be things that I learn from reading the poem or questions arising from it about life in fourteenth-century England. Today’s post is the latter.

Although I haven’t come across them in the book yet, I know that two of the pilgrims going to Canterbury are a pardoner and a summoner.  What I don’t know is what they do, except the obvious that one pardons and the other summons. Who do they pardon and summon, though, and on whose behalf?

Here are the answers.

The pardoner was a secular clerk or friar, whose role was originally that of messenger, which we’ll come to later. By the fourteenth century he was carrying relics around with him, which he displayed for a fee. Anyone who knew anything about relics in the Middle Ages would have realised how unlikely it was that someone in such a lowly position would be travelling around with one, let alone more than one, relic. Even tiny fragments were kept in reliquaries or inside shrines and further secured within churches. Chaucer’s pardoner has a pillow-case he says is the veil of the Virgin Mary and he also has a bit of St. Peter’s fishing boat. I suspect that Chaucer’s contemporaries were very aware of what was going on with regard to false relics.

The pardoner also sold indulgences, which many people wrongly believed were pardons for sin. Their official title was questor (asker), since they asked people about their sins. The role was abolished by the pope in 1562, a little late, as the selling of indulgences was one of the abuses that figured largely in Luther’s ninety-five theses in 1517, which led to Reformation.

Indulgences were instituted with good intentions in the tenth century.  People confessed their sins to a priest and were absolved. They were then given a penance. Sometimes people were given penances that were beyond them physically and they could pay something in place of carrying out the penance. That was an indulgence. At first indulgences were specific to the person receiving them.

More general indulgences were introduced in the eleventh century. These could apply to anyone who met the conditions attached to them. The best known general (or plenary) indulgence is probably the one relating to the First Crusade in 1096 when Pope Urban II said that any man who set out to take Jerusalem for Christianity would have all his penance for the rest of his life cancelled.

Urban II also made use of partial indulgences for pilgrims visiting to specific churches and those who helped to restore a monastery in Normandy. During the twelfth century bishops started issuing their own indulgences to pilgrims visiting certain shrines in their dioceses. From that point it got out of hand.

An indulgence could reduce or cancel entirely the sinner’s penance. It did not forgive the sin or release the sinner from his guilt, although many people believed that it did. The finer points of theology might have been discussed in the great church councils attended by cardinals and bishops, but few parish priests understood them. Their parishioners had even less chance of knowing what the real purpose of an indulgence was.

Let us return to our seller of indulgences. The things that pardoners generally did were prohibited. They were not supposed to sell indulgences, preach in churches or forgive sins and they weren’t supposed to collect money for displaying relics. Officially all they could do was deliver the paperwork of an indulgence from the pope or a bishop to a repentant sinner.

As early as 1215, at the fourth Lateran Council, it was agreed that questors should be licensed. A licence could come from the pope or a bishop. In theory that meant that pardoners would be limited in where they could go and that they would have to show their licence as they travelled. In practice few people could read and most people wouldn’t have known to ask to see the licence anyway.

That obviously didn’t work and the behaviour of pardoners got worse. An edict was sent out in 1267 to say that pardoners couldn’t demand accommodation with clergy in the towns and villages they passed through, nor could they force a local priest to gather the parishioners to hear them preach, which was obviously what had been happening.

Even that wasn’t enough, though. By 1312 pardoners had to show their credentials to bishops in order to enter their dioceses. The Canterbury Tales was written towards the end of the century and things were clearly no better. To men like Chaucer, pardoners were clearly disreputable.

The other pilgrim whose job was a mystery to me is the pardoner’s friend the summoner. He was an official of the ecclesiastical courts and it was his responsibility to bring people to who were believed to have broken canon law to the archdeacon’s court. Lay people were summoned to the ecclesiastical courts for not paying their tithes or death duties, or after being accused of a sexual offence, or if they were involved in a marital dispute or were accused of perjury. By the end of the fourteenth century summoners were considered to be little more than spies and blackmailers.

They were introduced in England in the thirteenth century. It was widely believed that they threated people with non-existent crimes in order to extort money. They could also be bribed by those who were guilty to let them go. In this they were no different from many in the secular courts, although I think they were probably meant to be different.

Sources:
Who Murdered Chaucer? – Terry Jones
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases – Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Pilgrimage – Jonathan 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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Five Things To Do With Urine In The Middle Ages

Konstantinderafrikaner

This post has been a long time in the making. It has taken so long because I wanted to find proper sources for everything, but I’ve had to accept that if a respected historian says something in a television documentary it will have to do.

The respected historian I’m referring to is Ruth Goodman. She was in all of the historical farm series on BBC Two, but the series that I’m using are The Secrets of the Castle (about building a castle in the thirteenth century), Tudor Monastery Farm (set in 1500) and Tales from the Green Valley (set in 1620), all of which I watched for the third or fourth time in the last few weeks.  Although the last two are not strictly speaking about the Middle Ages, some of the uses people had for urine then were the same as they were in the fourteenth century.  I was originally inspired to write this post by something Ruth Goodman said in the Secrets of the Castle. She said that people in the Middle Ages used urine for everything. Whilst that’s an exaggeration, it isn’t much of one.

Urine was a valuable resource and it was collected. In the fourteenth century there were no indoor toilets, unless you lived in a castle or a monastery, and nobody who needed to get up in the night was going to go outside to the midden (the most basic form of toilet) or the necessary house (a slightly more sophisticated toilet, with walls and a roof). Even if it wasn’t icy, raining or snowing outside, the toilet facilities would be some distance away from the house and the darkness of night was considered dangerous. Instead of going out they used a chamber pot. This was emptied each morning into a storage pot, which was also kept as far away as possible from the house. The pot was covered and the urine left to ferment,  becoming amonia. I’m a bit shaky on the science, so that  might not be quite what happens. Whatever it is that goes on in the storage pot, there is a usable, but very smelly,  product after three weeks.

We saw one of the uses when we were looking at the production of cloth. Stored urine was used in the fulling and bleaching processes. Urine was pounded into the cloth, with with the feet or wooden paddles. The cloth was rinsed and then spread out to dry in the sun. Something similar was done on a domestic scale on washday. Contrary to popular belief, medieval people in general did wash their clothes and bedlinen. It was their underclothes that they washed, however. The outer layer was usually made from woollen cloth, which can be washed, but takes forever to dry, even in the summer. It made sense, therefore, to protect the woollen garments from things that could make them dirty, such as sweat, by not wearing them next to the skin. Garments that touched the skin tended to be made of linen, which could be washed frequently.  These were put into a tub and had the stale urine poured over them. After a bit of of a soak, they were taken to the river where they were rinsed, then beaten with a paddle to get the dirt out. When they were clean they were dried in the sun.

I wrote last week that tanning was such a malodorous process that tanneries were usually built beyond a town’s walls. One of the reasons why it was so bad was that this was another process that used urine. It was one of the substances used to remove hair from the leather. The leather was soaked in a vat of urine until the hairs could be scraped off. Thankfully, the later processes removed the smell, but being a tanner could not have been pleasant.

Urine was also used in dying, where it was a mordant: a substance that fixes the dye to the fibre so that it doesn’t wash out. Woad, for example,  was picked, chopped finely and moulded into balls. Once the balls were dry, they were ground into a powder, to which urine was added. The threads were dipped into the resulting mixture, which was green. When they removed from the liquid, they turned blue. The technique is still used today by some people who use natural dyes.

Medicine also made use of urine for diagnosing illnesses. Much as you can tell today from your urine whether you’re hydrated or not, or that you’ve been eating beetroot or asparagus, a medieval physician could learn much from the colour, smell or taste of his patient’s urine. That’s why you knew without thinking too much about it that the monk at the top of the post is a physician. His patients are bringing him flasks of urine for him to make diagnoses. Just as kings are always depicted wearing their crowns in medieval art (even if they’re in bed) so physicians are depicted with urine flasks.

Last, but by no means least, urine was used in alchemy. In the fourteenth century alchemy was a respectable science and it wasn’t always about turning lead into gold. In this case, however, it was. One path towards turning one metal into another was to turn one metal into the facsimile of another. The theory was that if you could imitate something you would understand more about how to create it.  Urine, specifially urine from a youth, was used in a process to create an imitation of gold. Just in case you want to give it a go, the recipe is one dram of lime and one dram of ground sulphur. They’re mixed together, then the urine is added and the mixture heated. When it looks like blood, it should be filtered. If you dip a piece of silver into the clear liquid, will take on the appearance of gold.

Sources:
Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine by Nancy G Siraisi
Tudor Monastery Farm by Peter Ginn, Ruth Goodman and Tom Pinfold
The Secrets of Alchemy by Lawrence M. Principe

 

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 Shoes and Pattens

Shoes 2

In the fourteenth century shoes were mostly made from leather, which was often tawed, rather than tanned. Tanning changed the structure of the leather, making it last longer and less likely to decompose. Tawing, on the other hand, was a process that made the leather softer and easier to stretch. The leather was soaked in a solution that could include egg yolks, flour and potash.

Leather shoes were made by the turnshoe method. A soft piece of leather – the upper – was placed skin side down on the last. It was stitched to the sole and turned inside out.

Most shoes were very simple and men’s and women’s shoes were similar. At the beginning of the fourteenth century there wasn’t even any difference between right and left shoes, other than that made by the wearer’s feet in use. Over the course of the century this changed, at least in the shoes made for the wealthy.

There were various ways of making sure that shoes didn’t come off. They could be laced on the side or top, buckled, and they might be made with or without back straps.

Shoes for the wealthy could have patterns scored in them in which the top of the leather was scraped away to reveal the suede beneath. Alternatively, leather uppers could be decorated with scoring, patterning of the leather and embroidery.

Sometimes the leather was decorated by punching holes in it to make diamond-shaped openings, forming a lattice on the upper of the shoe. Sometimes the spaces created would be filled with embroidery. It made the leather very fragile, though, so was presumably something only for the wealthy, for whom shoes tended to be more decorative than useful or hard-wearing

Pattens by the bed

It was also during the fourteenth century that fashionable clothing became important. This didn’t just mean making clothes and shoes from better quality materials, but wearing styles that made it obvious that the wearer didn’t do physical labour or even walk very far. The most notorious example of this was the long-toed poulaine shoe, in which the thin, pointed toe could be as long again as the foot. No one who wore it could be in a hurry to get anywhere, nor could they walk very far. These shoes were popular at the court of Richard II. They were completely impractical for anything other than standing around looking important and were really just for aristocrats. They were condemned by the church in the mid-fourteenth century as being ‘more like the talons of a demon than the ornaments of men’. Contrary to popular belief, the points of the toes were not tied to the wearer’s legs. They were never that long. The photograph below shows an interpretation of the style for people who liked to look fashionable, but still had to work.

Pointed shoes

Sometimes the toes of poulaines were stuffed with hair or moss. In case you’re interested, researchers know what kind of moss was most used in London. It was thuisium tamarascinuum, which was both springy and absorbent.

There were other kinds of shoes available in the fourteenth century: buskings, ankle shoes, bateaux, galoches and trippes. In a different kind of fashion statement, some men had leather soles sewn into the bottom of their hose, so that it looked as if their shoes were the same colour as their leggings.

Most villages had someone who could work leather. If you were in a town there would be several places where you could have shoes made or buy secondhand ones.  Shoes were made by cordwainers, not cobblers.  They were named after Cordovan leather from southern Spain. It was very soft and very expensive. The London Company of Cordwainers (the shoemakers’ guild) was founded in 1272.

Cobblers, on the other hand, were originally dealers in secondhand shoes. They bought old shoes, which often needed some work doing on them before they could be sold on. Worn shoes went back to the cordwainer for repair, but cobblers began to develop the necessary skills and there were arguments with the cordwainers about how much new leather the cobblers could use in their work. Eventually it was agreed that they could use very little. Resoling and repairs requiring new leather were to be done by the cordwainers.

Shoes had flat heels, which meant that their wearers would be walking in mud on wet days or on ice on cold days. There were no pavements and roads weren’t even cobbled, so roads and paths were at the mercy of the elements. Although shoes could be made waterproof by the mid-twelfth-century, most weren’t. The method involved adding more layers of leather, which was expensive. There were easier ways of keeping feet dry.

Pattens

Pattens kept the feet (and shoes) off the ground. They were usually made from a flat piece of wood with two wedges on the bottom. Sometimes, like the pair in the photograph above, they were flat and hinged, presumably to make walking in them easier.  They were usually made from alder, willow or poplar. Alder is a durable wood even when it gets wet, but it was also the preferred wood for arrows, which took priority.

The leather straps holding them on the wearers’ feet could also be decorated in the same way as shoes or they could be painted. Medieval people loved decorations and bright colours.

Here’s a video of shoes being made in the medieval way. You’ll see that the process is even more fiddly than you think.

Sources:
Medieval Bodies– Jack Hartnell
Shoes and Pattens– Francis Grew and Margrethe de Neergaard
The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

 

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 Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers and Arrowsmiths

Fletcher

Fletcher

Four different crafts were involved in equipping a medieval archer to go to war. His bow was made by a bowyer and the bowstring by a stringer. His arrows were made by a fletcher and the arrowheads by an arrowsmith.

During the Hundred Years’ War (1337 to 1453) there was a huge demand for bows and arrows. Edward III had many made for his archers, breaking the tradition that men going to fight for the king took their own weapons, arrows and spare strings. Archers still did that, of course, but Edward III provided equipment to some of them.

Every county in England had to supply its quota of bows and arrows when required to do so. Given that they were made all over the country, maintaining standards was impossible. During the fourteenth century guilds for bowyers and fletchers were established and one of their responsibilities was to ensure that bows and arrows were only made by men who had been trained properly and could achieve the necessary standard.

There were guilds in towns across England. The Company of Bowyers in London was created before 1363, when it was first mentioned in the records. It wasn’t long before the fletchers formed their own guild in London: the Company of Fletchers. Bowyers and fletchers were prohibited from working at night, because making good quality bows and arrows needed good light.

Like most craft guilds, they operated a system of apprenticeship. Apprentice bowyers were taken on for seven years. They had to be honest, able-bodied, free born and English by birth. Before they could start work for their master, they had to be approved by the guild. In the fourteenth century the apprenticeship began at 14.

Whilst bowyers and fletchers were men, it is probable that some stringers were women, as it was work that required a great deal of manual dexterity. The strings were wound from hemp.

Here is a video showing how bowstrings might have been made in the Middle Ages. It’s definitely a fiddly business.

The preferred wood for arrows was aspen, but ash and birch were also used. First the wood was split and cut to the right length, then it was planed, first with a flat plane and then with a rounded plane. That’s what the fletcher in my photograph is doing. Then it was smoothed with sandstone or dogfish skin, the medieval equivalents of sandpaper. A notch was cut at one end for the bowstring. It was filled with a bit of cow horn or deer antler to prevent the arrow splitting when it was placed against the bowstring under pressure.

The feathers were cut from the quill and glued to the shaft, often with glue made from rabbit skin. That was just to hold them in place while they were bound with linen or silk thread. As the fletcher explained to us, there were only three feathers on an arrow. The side that was going to be in contact with the bow had to be featherless. Feathers were mostly taken from the wing feathers of geese, but swan and peacock feathers were also used. The other end of the arrow was shaped appropriately to fit into the arrowhead, which was heated red-hot so that it would be attached firmly. Arrowsmiths produced the arrowheads. Unlike the bowyers and fletchers, they were allowed to work at night. The final part of the process was to add a compound to keep away feather mites.

Arrows were supplied in sheaves of 24 arrows. A sheaf of arrows cost 16d. Archers were paid 3d a day, which illustrates the importance of good quality arrows.

Whilst some arrows damaged after being used could be repaired and reused, it usually required the work of a skilled fletcher, so an English army going to France needed to take hundreds of thousands of arrows with them. In 1359 850,000 arrows were delivered to the Tower of London, where arms purchased by Edward III were stored. 500,000 were delivered the following year.

The preferred wood for bows was elder, but there wasn’t enough in England to keep up with demand. It was imported from Spain, the Baltic and the Adriatic. Wych elm was also used for bows, as were other types of wood.

It would take almost a day to make a bow.

Bowyers employed taskemen who were paid a set rate for working on one part of the process on 100 bows. These stages were:

  1. Chipping – cutting the piece of wood that was going to be the bow with a hand axe so that it was roughly the right shape.
  2. Thwyting – scraping away the excess wood on the back of the bow.
  3. Dressing – working on the other three sides.
  4. Bending – bending the bow.
  5. Horning – attaching horn to the bow or nocking the ends to allow the bowstring to be attached.
  6. Clensynge uppe – making everything smooth.
  7. Afterbending – bending the bow for a final time to make sure that the shape is correct.
  8. Polysyng and skynnyng – polishing and sealing the bow with linseed oil or wax.

Although bows and arrows were made all over the country, many bowyers, fletchers and stringers settled in London, due to the large numbers purchased by the king for storage in the Tower of London, the main store for arms. Bows and arrows could also be sent to the port from which troops were going to leave for France. Export of bows and arrows was forbidden and some craftsmen weren’t allowed to leave the country in the service of their lords.

Supplies for archers weren’t just stored in the Tower, they were also made there. Some bowyers, fletchers, stringers and arrowsmiths were based there. There was a similar operation in Bordeaux to supply English armies in Gascony and, after Edward III took it in 1347, another in Calais.

If you’re interested in seeing the outcome of all of this, here’s a video of an experiment about the extent to which bows and arrows used at Agincourt might have been able to pierce armour.

Sources:
Arrowstorm by Richard Wadge
The Great Warbow by Matthew Strickland and Robert Hardy
War Bows by Mike Loades

 

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:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Medieval Conservation

roe-deer-1482717_1920

Image by RitaE from Pixabay

After last week’s post about otter hunting, there was some discussion in the comments about hunting animals to extinction during the Middle Ages. For the most part, however, this is a fairly recent phenomenon.

The exception in medieval England was the wolf.  They were apparently very numerous during the times of the Romans and the Saxons and very dangerous. People were rewarded for killing them, partly because of the threat they posed to livestock, but also because of the value of their skins. They became increasingly rare and, depending on whom you ask, the last wolf in England was killed in the fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth or eighteenth century.

Other beasts perceived to be dangerous to animals kept to feed people, such as foxes, however, are still plentiful. English Otters, though, didn’t fare so well. During the last century they were hunted almost to extinction and the population is only starting to recover now.

Animals that medieval aristocrats liked to hunt were protected to some extent. All animals that were hunted, even foxes and otters, had a close season, although it might not have been observed meticulously. There were a variety of reasons for close seasons.

The most obvious was that a close season around the time the young were being born preserved the stock for future hunting. This was applied rigorously to deer, the most noble of the beasts hunted in England. Even during the open season, hunters were not indiscriminate. Harts and bucks had to be a certain age before they were worth hunting, thus allowing them time to breed. Medieval aristocrats saw the dangers of over-hunting and avoided them.

Another reason for a close season for ‘lesser’ animals, was that they would be hunted only during the part of the year when they were most worth catching. For some animals this would be when they were judged to be at their peak for eating; for others it would be when the skin or the fat for which they were hunted were at their best.

Aristocratic hunters also restrained themselves out of respect for the animals they hunted, although this was, again, mainly limited to deer.

Whilst aristocratic hunters could afford to think about preserving stock for the future, peasants could not. It’s extremely unlikely that they observed close seasons on anything. If you were going to break the law by poaching a deer, it wouldn’t matter whether you did it in August or January. They also didn’t possess the means to hunt on horseback, but tended to trap animals, which was an indiscriminate method of hunting.

Sources:

Medieval Hunting by Richard Almond

 

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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Troilus and Criseyde

Troilus and Criseyde

Following last week’s post about The Decameron, I thought I’d write about an English work from the fourteenth century. It’s a story from the Trojan War that’s been used by many writers over the centuries. Criseyde is the daughter of a Greek who fled Troy at the beginning of the war, leaving her behind. She has been an exemplary citizen and is highly regarded, for her virtue and quiet lifestyle as much as for her beauty. Troilus is the son of King Priam, the king of Troy. He’s handsome, brave and a great soldier. One day he sees Criseyde in the temple and it’s love at first sight. He declares that he’ll die if he doesn’t meet her, worrying a friend of his, who happens to be Criseyde’s uncle. The uncle engineers a meeting between the two of them, but that’s not enough for Troilus. He and the uncle trick Criseyde into spending the night with him and they become lovers. They declare their undying love and continue to see one another in secret. Meanwhile, Criseyde’s father decides that he wants his daughter back. He suspects that Troy won’t be a safe place for her for much longer, so he gets a message to her telling her to leave the city. Criseyde doesn’t want to go and Troilus doesn’t want her to go, but he has to escort her out of the city and hand her over to her father. She says that she’ll find a way to run away from the Greeks and rejoin Troilus. He says she’d better not fall in love with the sturdy-looking knight who’s with her father. Diomede, the knight, sees a woman without friends and decides to seduce her. After a few days, Criseyde realises that escaping from the Greek camp is going to be more difficult than she thought and allows herself to be seduced. Troilus eventually admits to himself that she’s not coming back and goes out to die in battle.

It’s a sorry tale, in which no one mentions marriage, which would have allowed Criseyde to stay in Troy, although, given what happens later when the city falls, that probably isn’t a bad thing. You can probably tell that I’m overly taken with the story itself. Troilus wasn’t a hit with me either. He spends a lot of time weeping, which wouldn’t have bothered fourteenth-century readers at all, but annoyed me. It didn’t annoy me because I think men shouldn’t cry, but because Troilus is entirely without agency. He does nothing for himself, but his tears cause his friend to act on his behalf. In many ways, that shows how requirements for a good story have changed over the centuries.

In the elements and structure of the story, Chaucer follows Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato quite closely, although there are whole sections which are Chaucer’s own creations. Boccaccio didn’t invent the story, but took it from a twelfth-century poem, the Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. It was a popular tale in the Middle Ages and the best-known retelling was by Shakespeare. Chaucer finished writing his poem around 1381.

In my Middle English edition, the poem is 347 pages long. That makes it too long to be read to an audience over the course of an evening,  the way in which most people would have experienced it in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It’s divided into five books, though, each of which would probably make an evening’s entertainment.

Troilus and Criseyde is set during the Trojan War, but the world its characters inhabit is very much fourteenth-century England. As well as it being an example of something written in the fourteenth century, the poem can teach us a lot about the world in which Chaucer lived. The garden where Criseyde walks with her ladies is set out like an English garden and the house in which she lives was of a type that would have been familiar to Chaucer and his original audience. The furnishings in her house would have been found in houses of the well-to-do at the time. Chaucer refers to chess and tennis and other games played by fourteenth-century people in their free time. Like Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Troilus and Criseyde is worth reading for its own sake, but it’s also a good source of information about life in the fourteenth century.

You can read about Chaucer’s life in this post.

 

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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Boccaccio and Chaucer

Decameron

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that I’m fascinated by the Black Death. I want to know what people thought about it, how they coped while it was at its height and what life was like after it. One day, when I’m a much better writer than I am now, I hope to write a novel about it.

Last year, partly in the hope of getting a bit more insight into how people coped during the Black Death, I read Boccaccio’s The Decameron. It’s a collection of 100 stories told by ten refugees from the plague in Florence to while away the time until they can return to the city. It’s a fantasy, of course. They retreat to a lovely, secluded villa, where there are beatific grounds in which they wander until the evening, when they gather together to tell their tales, none of which has anything to do with the Black Death.

The main reason why I read The Decameron was because it’s one of the major literary works of the fourteenth century. Boccaccio had probably been collecting the stories for years and the conceit of ten young people entertaining one another gave him a structure for putting them together. Every evening (except Sundays and the day on which they move to another, even nicer villa) each of the ten has to tell one story. Apart from the first, each evening has a theme for the stories. There are stories about fidelity and infidelity. There are stories against the church and stories against ‘clever’ men. There are stories about revenge and about wives who know more than their husbands. Some of the stories are amusing and some of them are very dark indeed.

Some of the tales found their way into The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer visited Italy at least twice and he probably read some of Boccaccio’s works, as well as those of Petrarch, Boccaccio’s friend, while he was there. His Troilus and Criseyde is a retelling of Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato. The structure itself of The Canterbury Tales might be borrowed from The Decameron.

The stories weren’t, for the most part, created by Boccaccio. Some of them aren’t even Italian in origin. His genius lay, as did Chaucer’s, in the way he told them and in the way he put them together.

Although Boccaccio lived through the Black Death, it’s unlikely he was in Florence all the time. Apparently, he hated the city of his birth and preferred Naples, where he spent his early adulthood. He was born in 1313 and, while he was in Naples, he was apprenticed to a banker. Banking was very advanced in Italy and the rest of Europe borrowed from Italian bankers. Boccaccio wanted to write, though, and went back to Florence in 1341. The Black Death arrived in Italy in 1347 and had receded by 1349. Boccaccio probably started work on The Decameron around then. In later life, he travelled on behalf of the Florentine state, visiting Avignon, where the papal court was based, and Rome. He died in 1375.

As it turned out, reading The Decameron did give me some insight into life during the Black Death. In his introduction to the stories, Boccaccio describes what Florence was like in 1348. He describes the symptoms of the plague and what happened when people grew ill and died. It’s the horrors of this nightmare world that his storytellers want to escape and they do so by telling stories of life before the plague arrived.

In case you’re wondering, I enjoyed reading The Decameron. Some of the stories are very dark, but most of them are entertaining.

 

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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The Road to Crécy by Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel – A Review

Crecy

The Road to Crécy is almost a step by step account of the Crécy campaign from the moment Edward III set foot in Normandy on 12 July 1346  up to the immediate aftermath of the battle on 26 August.  The first chapter includes some background as to how the invasion came to take place and what its aims might have been, and the second describes the types of soldiers he took with him. Thereafter we’re marching with them across the north of France.

No one is quite sure whether Paris was Edward’s real goal,  or whether he intended to meet up with another English army further south. Either way, Edward and his army spent six weeks marauding through France, narrowly escaping being trapped and wiped out more than once. He came to within 20 miles of Paris then turned northeast, managing to cross the Seine without being seen by the larger French army which was shadowing the English army on the other side of the river. Most of the bridges had been destroyed or were heavily guarded. This wasn’t the last time the English were trapped on the wrong side of a river. A few days before the battle, the French pinned them down between the River Somme and the sea. Once again Edward’s men crossed a river against the odds and were able to choose the location of the battle.

Those are the bare bones of the campaign. Livingstone and Witzel fill in the gaps with details about who was in the army; what kinds of soldiers there were; how they were armed; what happened at each town or settlement they came to; and, most interesting of all to me, what the king ate on most days. One of my favourite aspects of the book is the account of the supplies taken to France. The army didn’t travel lightly, not did it expect to live off the land, although there was a lot of pillaging, especially towards the end when supplies were running low.

I love detail and this book gave me that. Livingstone and Witsel have pieced together a coherent narrative of events from various contemporary sources, most of which focus on the battle itself. I’m sure this made it more difficult to work out the logistics of the journey to Crécy.

As you would expect from a book about a military campaign, there are many maps and these are very useful. Less useful are the photographs. They’re all in black and white and are not terribly clear. It’s not always obvious why they’ve been included.

This is a very good book if you want to understand everything that was involved in a medieval campaign. I found it both interesting and useful.

 

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:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon

 

 

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