Category Archives: Fourteenth Century

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.

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Anatomy of a Castle – The Chapel

During my travels earlier in the year, I saw various kinds of chapels in different parts of castles. I knew that many castles had churches in the bailey and that space inside the castle buildings was at a premium, so I hadn’t really thought that there were many chapels in castles. I was wrong.

I saw three different types of chapel. The first type was the private chapel, usually just off the living quarters of the man who held the castle. The second was a more public chapel for the use of soldiers and members of the household. The third was a huge space, due to the castle concerned having previously been a bishop’s palace. I wasn’t sure whether I should include that one, but I have, as you’ll see below.

The original chapel, from which all others took their name, was the one in which the kings of France kept the cloak (chapele) of St Martin of Tours. St Martin was a bishop in the fourth century. His legend says that he cut his cloak in half to share it with a ragged beggar who later turned out to be Christ. The shrine which held the cloak was a place of private worship for the kings.

Having a private chapel in a castle, however small, seems to me to be a huge luxury.  It’s difficult to imagine the lord, his wife and their immediate family and closest members of their household cramming into a tiny space for mass, though. Unless they were built for royalty, they do tend to be very small.

There is a private chapel at Conisbrough Castle, built into one of the buttresses of the Great Tower. It was built at the end of the twelfth century and shows the great wealth of the man who had it built. It’s off the lord’s solar, so you had to have access to that space in order to enter the chapel.

Chapel, the keep, Conisbrough Castle

Chapel, the Great Tower, Conisbrough Castle

Even while the lord was away, the chapel priest at Consibrough Castle prayed for his soul daily, as well as those of his wife, their fathers and Henry II, who was the king at the time.

The chapel tapers to a point, but isn’t very wide anywhere. It must have been crowded if anyone joined the lord and his wife for mass.

This is the vault of the chapel, which I share simply because the stonework here is rather impressive.

Vault of chapel, the keep, Conisbrough Castle

The vault of the chapel in the Great Tower, Conisbrough Castle

This is the lower chapel at Old Sarum. It was dedicated to St. Margaret and was probably used by the soldiers and servants of the castle. Above it was a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas. It was in the upper chapel that the royal family heard mass when they were in residence.

Lower chapel, courtyard house, Old Sarum

Lower Chapel, Old Sarum

The chapel for the soldiers at Richmond Castle was a lot less spacious. Also dedicated to St Nicholas, it was built in the eleventh century into the wall surrounding the bailey. It’s tiny, not much more than 6 feet wide. You can just see the niche to the left of the main window which is thought to have held candles. There’s a similar one on the other side. There are benches around three of the walls and the arches that you can see above the bench were supported by painted pillars. It’s worth bearing in mind that this chapel, like the others pictured here, would have been decorated with brightly coloured paintings on the walls and the ceilings.

IMG_20190415_104320

The Chapel, Richmond Castle

At Prudhoe Castle a space in the gatehouse was converted into a chapel in the thirteenth century. Given its size and functional brickwork, my guess would be that it was for the soldiers and not the nobility.

IMG_20190414_131017

The Chapel, Prudhoe Castle

The building below is presumed to be the chapel at Sherborne Old Castle. The upper space was the bishop’s chapel and the lower space that of the lowlier members of the household. Sherborne Old Castle was built by Roger, Bishop of Sarum, who was chancellor to Henry I.  You’ll recognise that the arrangement is the same as that at Old Sarum, where Bishop Roger also had a hand. Although it was fortified, Sherborne Old Castle was more a palace for the bishop than a castle. When it was first built, it was full of clerics and their servants, and might have been run on monastic lines. I’m not sure how much use such a huge chapel would have seen once the castle took on a more secular role.

Chapel, Sherborne Old Castle

The Chapel, Sherborne Old Castle

A lasting feature of medieval chapels and churches is the piscina.

Piscina, chapel in keep, Conisbrough Castle

Piscina, Chapel, Conisbrough Castle

As you can see, a piscina is a stone basin in which the chalice and paten were washed after mass. It was the priest who washed them, because his fingers had been in contact with the host and the wine, which were believed to have become the body and blood of Christ. His fingers and the vessels had to be cleaned and the water in the piscina drained away to the consecrated ground outside. In a church or an abbey this would be all the surrounding ground, but I’m not sure how this was managed in a castle.

In my novels the castles usually have churches in the bailey, but I’m beginning to see the dramatic possibilities of a private chapel.

Sources:

Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei

Sherborne Old Castle by Peter White

Old Sarum by John McNeill

Richmond Castle by John Goodall

Prudhoe Castle by Susie West

A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corédon and Ann Williams

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.

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May Pottage

May Pottage

This post completes the year of pottage. I had planned to stop here anyway, but I can’t get dried peas in the supermarket any longer and, having discovered that I’m allergic to raw peas (probably), I don’t want to grow my own. Most of the fun in growing peas is opening a pod in the garden and eating the contents still warm from the sun.  It’s not worth a swollen face, though. Without dried peas to add flavour during the winter months, pottage would be very bland.

We’re very much in the thin time of the year in May. There’s nothing in my garden to be eaten except herbs. I have lots of blood sorrel, parsley, chives and sage. They’re all very tasty, but I wouldn’t want to have to live on them. There are also dandelion leaves, if you let them grow, which I don’t.

So, what did my fourteenth-century housewife cook in May? Towards the end of the month, peas might be available. Lettuce is coming up. Spinach is another possibility, although mine is only a couple of inches tall. In some parts of the country you might be able to pick beetroot by now, but mine has only just germinated. If I grew them, radishes would be worth eating, but I wouldn’t want to make a pottage with them.

In the end I decided to use spring greens, as I did last month. Someone pointed out recently that I haven’t used mushrooms in a pottage, so I put some in this one. They wouldn’t be at their best at this time of year in the fourteenth century, but they would have been available. I have managed to grow a few mushrooms, but I suspect the medieval housewife would have gathered them from the wild. I bought mine from the supermarket.

I cut up the spring greens and put them in a large pot with a bit of water. Then I added parsley and chives from the garden to give it a bit more taste. Once the spring greens had wilted, I added the quartered mushrooms. It probably would have been better if I’d sliced them.

I have to confess that this pottage was not a great success. The mushrooms were fine, but the spring greens were very chewy. It was edible, but it would not have provided much nourishment.

It’s been an interesting experiment over the last twelve months. Although a lot of what I ate was tasty, I think it would be very monotonous for a modern person not used to being restricted to what was available at a particular time of the year. My fourteenth-century housewife would not have dreamt that food could be available out of season, but might still have felt that she couldn’t face another cabbage by this time of the year.

 

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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April Pottage

April Pottage

April is a bit of a sparse month with regard to vegetables. There’s nothing in my garden that would form the centrepiece of a pottage, so I bought a head of spring greens from the greengrocer. As the names suggests, they’re in season and the cabbage that a medieval housewife would have had available at this time of year was more open than the tight heads that we have now, so they resembled spring greens.

What my garden does have, as you can see from the photograph below, is a few herbs.  From left to right there are chives, parsley, savory, blood sorrel and lemon balm. Thanks to my single parsley plant going mad producing seeds after last year’s hot summer, there’s a lot of parsley, so I picked some of that as well as some chives to take the place of onions as flavouring.

Herbs (2)

I thought the medieval housewife might have run out of barley by now, so I just used the leaves I had. As usual, there’s no pepper or salt and no stock. The leaves were wilted in the pot, as I didn’t want the pottage to have any liquid.

I did eat some bread with it to give it a bit of body, but the pottage itself was very tasty. I can’t say that it was particularly filling. Lent’s over, though, and the medieval family is able to eat eggs, cheese and meat, if they can get any.

 

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 Hospitals

God's House Tower

God’s House Tower, Southampton

Hospitals might not be something that you associate with the fourteenth century, but most towns had one, if not two. Many were founded in the twelfth century and were the result of both the First Crusade and what might be considered a spiritual revival at that time.

Hospitals were religious institutions. Monasteries and convents had always had infirmaries where sick and elderly members of the community were cared for. From the twelfth century that care was extended formally to the community beyond the walls of the abbeys. Hospitals were usually staffed by monks and nuns, but sometimes a physician was employed as well.

Medieval hospitals took many forms. They could be hostels for pilgrims, hospices for the dying, almshouses for the aged poor, or a hospital for the sick poor. They were founded as acts of charity.

The hospital set up in  Jerusalem after the First Crusade in 1113 was a model for later hospitals. It had room for 1,000 to 2,000 beds with 150 staff. It cared mostly for poor people who were sick and for wounded Crusaders. It provided the ideal of what a hospital should be for many centuries. In the hospital the poor, the wounded and the sick were considered lords and those who looked after them their servants.

Hospitals were mainly for providing hospitality, which is where the name comes from. They were often called a Maison Dieu or Domus Dei. In English they were called God’s House. The hospital was a house because it was always part of a religious community, a household with God at the head. There are the remains of one near where I live dating back to the twelfth century. A God’s House was essentially a large hall where people could lie along the walls in beds. It had a chapel for prayers and mass.

In a hospital there would probably be a fire. Patients might have to share a bed, so the chances were good that you would catch something worse than the reason you were there in the first place. On the plus side, the floor and the sheets would be washed often, and mutton was prescribed, regardless of the illness. The inmates would probably be bathed as well as having their hair washed and their beards trimmed regularly.

There was another kind of hospital in medieval towns, but here the patients were not expected to survive their sickness. Until the arrival of the Black Death halfway through the fourteenth century, leprosy was probably the worst disease you could get. It wasn’t just the disease we know by that name today, but any disfiguring skin disease including eczema, psoriasis and lupus was considered to be leprosy.

Lepers were excluded from society, as it was considered to be extremely contagious.  Hospitals to house lepers were set up not within towns, but on roads into them. Leprosy was also considered to be incurable, so lepers weren’t expected to leave once they’d arrived. Ian Mortimer’s book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, has a very disturbing and distressing description of leprosy in the fourteenth century. Suffice it to say that it wasn’t uncommon for the fingers, toes and noses of sufferers to fall off.

There was a leper hospital a mile and a half away from where I’m writing this. Like God’s House, it was established in the twelfth century and was called the Hospital of St Mary Magdalene. In 1347 it received a grant of land from Edward III. It was supported by revenues from land that had been given to it on its foundation and by legacies. It also benefited from a tax of one penny on each tun of wine imported into the town, a not inconsiderable sum, given that Southampton was one of the main ports through which wine arrived from Bordeaux in the fourteenth century. Despite that, I doubt it was a pleasant place to inhabit.

Sources:

Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine by Nancy G. Siraisi

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt

Medieval Medicine: A Reader ed. Faith Wallis

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 Phlebotomy

A_chart_showing_the_parts_of_the_body_to_be_bled_for_different_diseases

For some reason I had assumed that bloodletting wasn’t very common in the Middle Ages, but my current reading about medieval medicine has set me right. Even in the early Middle Ages it was far from unusual.

Bloodletting is a logical consequence of accepting that illness is caused by an imbalance of the humours. As medical texts from the Greek and Arabic-speaking worlds were translated into Latin from the twelfth century onwards, it became even more important as one of the physician’s many skills. Bloodletting was carried out by both surgeons and physicians, even though it was technically a surgical procedure.

One of the purposes of bloodletting was to allow the physician to make a diagnosis. An instruction book, probably written by Maurus of Salerno in the twelfth century, told the physician what to look for in the blood he collected from his patient. The physician was to examine it before, during and after coagulation. He was to look for viscosity, hotness or coldness, greasiness, taste, foaminess and speed of coagulation. You’ll note that this required him to do a bit more than just look at the blood.

The main purpose of bloodletting was to treat diseases by restoring balance between the humours.  All the four humours were present in blood, so an excess of one of them could be removed by drawing off some blood.

The most common place for bloodletting was the arm, in which there were three major veins: the cephalic, the median and the basilic. If the diagnosis was that the patient was melancholic, however, a vein in the forehead was more likely to be cut. The veins in the thumb were associated with pains in the head and the vein between the ankle and the foot was linked to diseases of the genitals.

There were detailed instruction books available to physicians telling them how to tie the arm to prepare the vein and how to make the cut. There were also instructions about how to avoid nerves and arteries near the site of the incision. The manuals also told them how to limit the bleeding when they were finished.

The patient’s diet before and after the bloodletting was important, as were the seasons of the year, the phases of the moon and the time of day when the procedure was carried out. Charts like the one above, which showed where on the body cuts should be made for bloodletting, often included diagrams of astrological influences on the patient. Each sign of the zodiac had power over a specific part of the body and the diseases that affected it. In the fourteenth century, physicians would consult an astrological table to find out when there was a favourable alignment in the heavens for the exact procedure they were proposing. Knowing where the moon was in relation to the signs of the zodiac meant that the physician knew where to cut, since the moon and the other planets drew the humours to different parts of the body. The physician had to examine astrological tables and calendars to hand before he could decide what to do.

There were other things to think about as well. Was it better to remove a lot of blood in one go or to make a number of incisions over a period of time? Should the blood be taken from the afflicted area or from the opposite side of the body to encourage the blood to move away from the site of the disease?

Most medieval practitioners were aware of the risks associated with bloodletting. They were advised that blood should not be taken from small children, pregnant women, the old or the weak. Although they didn’t know what caused it or what it really was, they also knew about the risk of infection. They didn’t know how to prevent it, though, and there was little they could do once a cut became infected.

Despite this, some people had regular bloodlettings. In the late twelfth century,  Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, wrote a letter to a medical expert asking for help with an illness of long-standing and mentioned that he had put off his bi-monthly bloodletting. He was obviously someone who believed in the preventative efficacy of bloodletting, which was a common practice for those wealthy enough to be able to look after their health. Blood was a warm and wet humour, and bloodletting could make the patient cooler and drier, ready to face a hot summer.

Leeches were also used for bloodletting, but very rarely. I couldn’t even find them listed in the indices of the reference books I used.

Sadly, despite its popularity, bloodletting achieved nothing other than, in some cases, weakening the patient. It was many centuries, however, before the practice was challenged.

Sources:

Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell

Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine by Nancy G. Siraisi

 

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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March Pottage

pease pottage

I’ve come up in the world a bit for my Lenten pottage. It’s got sugar, salt and oil in it. That’s because I’m following a recipe. I did baulk, though, at the saffron for which it also calls. Even today it’s too expensive for anything other than a special occasion.

The recipe comes from The Medieval Cookbook and is a very basic pea pottage. It’s March, so my medieval housewife is using things from her stores. Since it’s also Lent and no meat is allowed, the meal is completely vegetarian.

The two main ingredients are dried peas and onions. I soaked the peas overnight and boiled them in fresh water for half an hour before I added the onions.  They boiled together for an hour, then I removed them from the heat and mashed them. They could also be sieved. I added small amounts of oil, sugar and salt, then simmered for another ten minutes. In the Middle Ages, the thicker a pottage was the better it was considered to be, and none of my pottages so far have been very thick. This one was.

When I poured it into the bowl it looked like mushy peas, which is basically what it was, except for the onion. I doubt many people realise they’re getting a medieval dish when they have mushy peas with their fish and chips.

Not only was it very tasty, but it was also very filling. It’s not the most attractive pottage I’ve made, but it’s one I’d make again.

 

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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Soap in the Fourteenth Century

B for Bath

There are a few things that were made during the fourteenth century that make me wonder why people thought that adding two (or more) specific things together would make something that they could use. For example, medieval ink was made from water, ground oak apples, gum and a rusty nail. I can understand why they thought the first three ingredients might work, but the addition of the rusty nail baffles me. Did someone drop it into the mix by accident or did he add it with some understanding of what might happen?

It’s the same thing with soap. Why would anyone think that adding lye to olive oil, or tallow (rendered animal fat) if you were making it in England, would make something you could wash with? 

It makes sense that people thought of lye (in this instance produced from potash) as a cleaning material. I mentioned last week that lye was used to bleach linen. It’s a caustic solution, though, and not the first thing that would come to mind when you’re thinking about cleaning your skin.

I should add that there are different types of lye, dependent on the type of plant involved. Lye was produced by mixing water with the ash of plants (usually wood, but other plants were also used), allowing it to stand for a while and then pouring off the water. The water was evaporated to concentrate the liquid and then added to the oil/fat.

Soap was used for washing clothes and, to a lesser extent, bodies.  Castile soap was the best quality soap available. As its name indicates, it came from Spain. It was made with olive oil and local potash. It came in hard cakes and was less caustic than soaps made in countries further north. It cost about 4d a cake, about two-thirds of a day’s wages for a skilled labourer in England. The white version was for cleaning the skin and the black version was for cleaning cloth. Similar types of soap were eventually made in Italy and Provence when they began importing soda ash from Egypt and Syria.

In England softer, more liquid soaps were made using tallow. They were white, grey and black and were used for cleaning cloth. They were fairly caustic, leaving washerwomen with blistered hands and legs.

Not surprisingly, for most people washing their skin meant using nothing more than water.

Sources:

The Time Traveller’s Guide to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer

Power and Profit: The Medieval Merchant in Europe by Peter Spufford

 

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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