Category Archives: Fourteenth Century

Lady Day and the Lost Eleven Days

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I have put off getting to grips with this topic for as long as possible, because it’s complicated, but the time has come to talk about the medieval New Year and why the English tax year begins on 6th April. It was not until I went to work in Germany that I realised that 6th April is an odd day for a tax year to begin. In Germany, and many other countries, it begins on 1st January. There is a reason why it begins on 6th April in England, but, as I said, it’s complicated.

Lady Day, or the Feast of the Annunciation (25th March), was the first day of the year in the Middle Ages. It was the celebration of the day on which the angel told Mary that she was pregnant, nine months before Christmas Day. Everything in the Middle Ages was based around the church calendar and 25th March was a sensible date to choose for the first day of the administrative year. You or I might have chosen the major feasts of Easter or Christmas, but Easter is a movable feast (in that its date changes from year to year), which makes it less than perfect as the beginning of the year. Christmas was such a big celebration that very little work was done. This made it less than suitable for a time requiring a lot of administrative work. The liturgical year began on the first day of Advent, which had much to recommend it, but that was also a date which changed from one year to the next. Lady Day was always on 25th March and was an important feast.

Lady Day and Christmas Day are two of the four quarter days. The others are  Michaelmas, the feast of St Michael and all Angels on 29th September, and Midsummer, on 24th June. Contracts would usually run from one Lady Day to the next. In later centuries the quarter days were hiring days for labourers and the days on which rents were due. They were days of reckoning and debts had to be paid by the end of the quarter. The quarter days were important well into the twentieth century and some rents are still paid on quarter days.

Why does this mean that the English tax year begins on 6th April? This is where things get complicated. In the Middle Ages England used the Julian calendar, which came into use in 45 BC. This calendar had a Leap Year every four years, which meant that, over time, important dates, such as the vernal equinox and the solstices, got out of synch with the reality. Every 128 years the calendar would get out by a day. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar in which there is a Leap Year ninety-seven times in four centuries rather than a hundred. This means that it take more than 3,000 years before the calendar is a day out.

By the time the Gregorian calendar was implemented in England in 1752 there was an eleven-day disparity between the two calendars and 3rd to 13th September did not exist in that year. The calendar went from 2nd to 14th September.

This is why the beginning of the financial year in England is 6th April. It’s not a wholly satisfying solution, until you realise that a tax year has to be 365 (or 366) days. Having a tax year with only  354 days would have caused all kinds of difficulties and arguments.

In the same year that this was introduced 1st January became the official start of the calendar year in England. This had long been the practice in Scotland and other countries. This meant that neither 1751 nor 1752 was a full year in England. In 1751 the calendar year ran from 25th March to 31st December. In 1752 it was from 1st January to 31st December less the eleven days in September. In order for the tax year to be a whole year, it had to run from 25th March 1752 to 5th April 1753.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to discover why those particular eleven days in September were chosen to be deleted. If you know, I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

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Medieval Bread

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A couple of months ago I touched on bread in the post about peasant food, but it really deserves a post of its own.

Bread was eaten by everyone, but not all bread was the same. Different crops were better suited to different parts of the country and wheat could not be grown everywhere. The other grain crops were rye, oats and barley.

Wheat could only be grown on good soil, so it was usually only the lord of the manor who ate white bread. Maslin was the bread eaten by most people. It was made from wheat and rye flour mixed together. Rye was used on its own to make a darker loaf.  In the cold, wet north and west of England, oats and barley were used to make bread.

The lord’s white bread was called pandemain. This was made from finely ground and sifted wheat flour. Wastel was another white bread. The wheat it was made from was not as finely sifted as that used for pandemain. The last type of white bread was cocket.

As we move through the brown breads the ingredients become increasingly unappetising. Cheat was made from whole wheat from which the bran had been removed. This was still bread for the wealthy. Tourte was made from husk and flour and was probably used for trenchers. Maslin was the next grade. Horse bread was made from any grain at hand and usually included peas and beans. As its name implies, it was intended for horses, but it could be eaten if nothing else was available. Bran bread was made mostly of bran.

Trenchers were slices of stale bread used as plates. Bread was sliced horizontally for this purpose. They were most useful for things like meat, which did not need to be eaten from a bowl. After the meal the trenchers were given to the poor.

Making bread was not a cheap business for ordinary people. The grain had to be grown or purchased. Some peasants would be paid for their labour with grain, some grew their own and some had to buy it. Once harvested or purchased, the grain had to be separated from the chaff then ground. This usually entailed some expenditure. Serfs had to take their grain to their lord’s mill and were fined if they did not. Some tried to use hand querns secretly, but these were slow and inefficient. It was generally better to take the grain to the miller and pay him to grind it.

Once ground, the flour could be made into dough. The yeast and the liquid for the dough usually came from beer. This would either be from a batch of beer that was brewing in the house or from a neighbour’s batch.

Baking the dough usually required another transaction. Few houses possessed an oven and householders who had one charged for its use or sold the bread they made to their neighbours. In some places there might be a communal oven, but using that also meant that money would change hands. A riskier option for those without an oven was to bake the bread in the embers of a fire. The bread had to be turned to make sure that it didn’t burn. Watching the bread and turning it seems to have been a task for men. If you lived in a town where there was a baker, you might not bother making bread at all, but simply go and buy a loaf. Bread prices were fixed by law.

Bread ovens were large and gave off a lot of heat, which is why most people didn’t have one. At the manor house the oven would usually be in a separate building to reduce the risk of burning down the house. A fire was built inside the oven. When the oven was hot enough the wood was raked out and the floor of the oven cleaned as well as possible without losing the heat. This was not easy, as it would have been difficult to get close enough to the oven to do much more than pull out the burning wood.

The bread was put inside the oven to bake, using long-handled paddles. Since the surface on which the bread was baked could never be completely cleaned after the fire had been removed, the bottom of the bread was usually black. This would not have appealed to the lord of the manor, so the bottom of the bread was sliced off to be eaten by the lowlier members of the household and the lord ate the upper crust, hence the eventual use of that expression to refer to those of high social standing.

For the poor, grain was more likely to be used in pottage rather than in bread. Pottage was much cheaper to make and used less grain. Bread was useful if someone was in the fields all day and needed to take something with them to eat.

This post was inspired by the cartoon antics of bread detective Ray Wry created by Clare Scott. That’s bread detective as in he’s a detective made out of bread. Thanks are also due to Ellen Hawley, from Notes from the UK, for drawing my attention to the origin of ‘upper crust’.

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The Medieval Floor

 

Encaustic tiles

Fourteenth century tiles

You might not have given much thought to medieval floors, but they were quite varied and offer good opportunities to a novelist in scene-setting or showing a character’s state of mind. In Beloved Besieged Elaine covers the floor of her father’s hall with rushes strewn with sweet-smelling herbs and flowers for her betrothal celebration. In my current work in progress, the heroine drops to the floor of the main room of the inn in which she’s staying, even though she suspects it will result in an unpleasant stain on her clothes.

Not all medieval floors were equal. In most houses, the floors of the rooms on the ground floor were simply beaten earth. It always sounded unpleasant, especially when I saw the state of the floors in castles that I visited. Thanks to them I had visions of lumpy, uneven floors being swept away when they were brushed or of bits of a floor sticking to shoes if someone entered the house from the rain or of it being scratched up by dogs or cats. Then I saw one in the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton. That floor is very solid and secure and would last for a long time with only a little maintenance.

It took a fair amount of effort to make such a floor and sometimes the neighbours were called on for help. As many people as the householder could get would walk on the floor for an afternoon (or longer) until it was flat and smooth. They literally walked round in circles until it was done. They would have a chat or a sing as they walked. This seems to me to be a very satisfactory way of providing a floor surface and is probably quicker and more enjoyable than laying a laminate floor.

 

The earthen floor would be covered with rushes. Rushes provided good insulation and could help to keep the floor clean. I know that I often point to The Secrets of the Castle for illustrations of many things, but the archaeologists demonstrate the practicalities of medieval life so well. When she moved into a labourer’s hovel near the building site, Ruth Goodman pondered how the rushes might have been laid, since loose rushes would not stay where they were put for long. She concluded that they would probably have been tied together in bunches and then laid on the floor. Other historians and archaeologists have considered whether the rushes might have been woven into mats before being placed on the floor, but everyone seems to be agreed that loose rushes were not strewn on the floor. Rushes weren’t just used in houses. Almost every domestic beaten earth floor would have been covered in them.

In a public building, an inn, for example, the rushes would have contained dreadful things trodden in from outside by people and dogs, but in a hovel, where the rushes would have doubled up as the bedding for the occupants, they would have been kept much cleaner. In the spring and summer herbs and flowers could be added to make the rushes (and the room) smell sweeter and to disguise less welcome odours.

Encaustic Tiles from Hyde Abbey

Fourteenth Century Tiles

Tiles provided a far more upmarket floor surface. Like everything else in medieval times, their production was very labour intensive. They required someone to dig the clay, which had to be cleaned and homogenised until it could be worked. Then it would be pressed into square, wooden moulds. After the tiles had been pushed out of the moulds, they would be dried and stacked in a kiln to be fired. A medieval kiln was more like an earthwork than an oven and firing could take twenty-four hours or more. Disaster was always close at hand. Bad weather could mean that the firing was delayed, or the tiles could be too wet and would explode when the water became hot enough to turn it to gas.

Tiles could be plain or patterned with different coloured clay. Decorated tiles were for the very rich or churches. The photographs in this post are of encaustic tiles recovered from the site of Hyde Abbey in Winchester. The patterns are made by using different colours of clay. Like the ones in the photographs, they were usually of two colours, but they could contain up to six different colours. Because the pattern is not just on the surface, it remains as the tile is worn down.

 

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The Abbey at Romsey

 

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Romsey Abbey

 

Towards the end of last year I wrote about the wall paintings at Romsey Abbey without really mentioning any of the other things contained in the abbey or the history of the abbey. I visited Romsey in October as part of my research for Beloved Besieged, since part of the story takes place there.

Romsey is a small town on the River Test, twelve miles south-west of Winchester. The abbey stands in the centre of the town and was a convent for over 500 years.

The abbey has a very long history, being founded at the end of the tenth century by Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great. The first building was probably made of wood, which was the norm for Saxon churches. The abbey was refounded in the middle of the tenth century and the nuns adopted the Rule of St Benedict.

Ethelflaeda became abbess in 996. She was canonised and is one of the patron saints of the abbey. This thirteenth century tomb is in her eponymous chapel, as is the fifteenth century painting of a priest.

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Thirteenth century tomb in St Ethelflaeda’s Chapel, Romsey Abbey

 

 

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Painting in St Ethelflaeda’s Chapel, Romsey Abbey

 

The abbey has two Saxon roods. A rood is a crucifix, usually life-sized.  One rood is inside, in a chapel, and the other is on an exterior wall.

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Interior Rood, Romsey Abbey

 

 

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Exterior Rood, Romsey Abbey

 

Romsey Abbey has housed some famous women including Matilda, later wife of Henry I and mother of Empress Matilda. She was educated in the abbey at the end of the eleventh century. Mary de Blois, daughter of King Stephen, against whom Empress Matilda fought a civil war, was abbess in the middle of the twelfth century. Mary was kidnapped from the abbey and forced to marry when she became Countess of Boulogne in her own right. This caused a scandal and the marriage was eventually annulled, although not until she had borne her kidnapper two children. After the annulment, Mary entered another convent, where she remained for the rest of her life.

The Vikings burned the abbey in the 990s. Fortunately, the nuns had received a warning and were able to escape. The Normans started to replace the Saxon church in the 1120s. Throughout its early history the abbey was rebuilt and extended several times.

The nuns lived in buildings south of the church, but nothing is left of them today. There were normally about one hundred nuns in the abbey, but it must have varied considerably over the years. In 1327 the bishop of Winchester wrote to the abbess to say that no more women could be admitted without his permission, as there were too many of them. It’s not known how many women were in the abbey at the time, but it must have been significantly more than one hundred.

Like many monasteries and convents, the abbey was badly hit by the Black Death in 1348/9. By the time the plague had run its course, only nineteen nuns remained alive. Their numbers never really recovered, providing sufficient cause to dissolve the abbey in 1539.

The nuns of Romsey always had a reputation for lax behaviour.They travelled as much as they could, thus flouting the Rule, which said that a nun should not leave the convent once she had been admitted to it.  The nuns also dressed extravagantly. Like monks, they were supposed to wear simple clothes. Two nuns were even excommunicated in the fourteenth century, although it’s not known what they had done to merit this.

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Fifteenth century reredos, St Lawrence’s Chapel, Romsey Abbey

 

This last photograph doesn’t have anything to do with the abbey. These are just some swans who were also enjoying the late autumn sun on the River Test a short walk from the abbey.

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The Medieval Pilgrim

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At the beginning of my latest novel, Beloved Besieged, Joscelin is a pilgrim who is being punished for a terrible sin by being made to walk to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Not all the pilgrims who travelled to shrines were being punished, however.

Pilgrims came from all levels of society and left home for a variety of reasons. Some were pious and wanted to visit a shrine to give thanks for something or to request a miracle. Some went as a penance, whether self-imposed or as a punishment from their confessors. The more serious the sin, the further away the object of the pilgrimage. Some simply wanted to see the world.  Pilgrims could also be of either sex. For most women it was the only way they would manage to see any of the world beyond their own home.

Pilgrimage was very popular in the fourteenth century, having reached its peak around 1300. There were, however, several periods during which English pilgrims had to be satisfied with destinations within England, such as Walsingham, Winchester or Canterbury due to war. There were also local cults which flourished for a short time and then disappeared.

Theological thought about the relics that pilgrims travelled to see or touch was mixed.  Many theologians considered that there was no value in the relic of a saint. Tomas Aquinas, however, found a spiritual justification for pilgrimage. He argued that a relic was the physical reminder of a saint. If someone loves someone else, he said, they love what that person leaves behind them when they die, so it was acceptable to love the saint’s relic. The bodily relic of a saint was connected to his or her soul and the Holy Spirit could work through the body of a saint as well as through his or her soul. Since God worked miracles through the saints’ bodies, he showed that he wanted them to be venerated. This argument goes somewhat awry when you realise that most relics were not parts of the bodies of saints, but an article associated with them. Sometimes this was just an image of them, which they had never seen or touched.

Following the sack of Constantinople in 1204 many relics found their way into the west and different churches claimed to have the same relic. There were, for example, at least three heads of John the Baptist. For most people this was of no importance at all. Some, however, questioned how it was possible that there were so many saints who had left four or five arms, or twenty fingers, behind them to be discovered in circumstances which became increasingly questionable.

The three main pilgrimage sites were Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela. Jerusalem was the most important and the most difficult to get to, for which read dangerous, time-consuming and expensive. If you were English, getting there meant a long overland journey to places such as Marseilles or Venice followed by a lengthy sea journey across the Mediterranean, at risk from pirates and storms. There was a very brief period when it was possible to travel overland to Jerusalem from Europe, but very few could afford to go to Jerusalem.

Going to Rome meant braving the wars in northern Italy that were, in part, responsible for keeping the fourteenth century popes in Avignon.

Compostela was, for most of the time, a much safer option. An English pilgrim could sail to Gascony and cross the Pyrenees and follow a route across northern Spain. If there was peace with France he, or she, might even be able to sail to Calais and cross France, following one of the many established routes which led to the south-west.

For most people, however, a pilgrimage was very much a local affair. Cults were constantly springing up and dying down again, so there would often be a shrine near to home, perhaps within a day or two’s walk.

Pilgrims usually travelled in groups for safety. Although the pope had declared that anyone attacking pilgrims was excommunicate and pilgrims announced themselves as such by carrying a staff and wearing a cross on their tunics, they were still frequently attacked and robbed. There were two types of pilgrim – those who set out carrying all the money they needed for the pilgrimage and those who begged for alms or worked as they travelled. The first group were obviously a target for bandits, but even the second group would occasionally be carrying a large amount of money and bandits could not tell which was which. Pilgrims needed money for offerings to be left at shrines as well as for food and accommodation.

There was a pilgrim ‘uniform’. As well as wearing his long tunic (a sclavein), which bore a cross, and carrying a staff, a pilgrim also carried a scrip. This was a leather pouch tied to his waist and it contained food, a bowl, a mug and money. The staff and scrip would be blessed by the pilgrim’s priest before he set out. Usually a pilgrim also wore a broad-rimmed hat. On the return journey he would proudly wear a trinket or badge that he had purchased at the shrine to prove that he had reached it. Pilgrims who had gone to Santiago de Compostela came back with cockleshells. This eventually became the symbol of pilgrimage, regardless of the shrine visited.

Pilgrims were supposed to be exempt from laws prohibiting begging and from paying tolls, but this prohibition was not always observed. Even pilgrims who had set out with a lot of money could find themselves running out.

The pilgrimage routes were not always the same as those followed by merchants, so they were not necessarily well-provided with inns or other forms of accommodation. Pilgrims could stay at monasteries and hostels set up along the pilgrim routes by monasteries. The Carmelite friary at Aylesford welcomed pilgrims on their way to Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. The Pilgrims’ Hall, pictured below, is now the dining-room for visitors to the friary.

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The Pilgrim’s Hall, Aylesford

Where the pilgrimage was a penance, the pilgrim sought absolution. Some shrines were ‘worth’ more than others in this regard and he had to choose his destination carefully.

Pilgrims expected to witness miracles at shrines. Past miracles were the reason why the shrines were there in the first place. Pilgrims would leave wax offerings at the shrine indicating the kind of miracle they had experienced or hoped for.

Since pilgrimages were a sign of humility, they were supposed to be carried out on foot. Some pilgrims even went so far as to go barefoot or to crawl, if only for part of the way. These were the most highly regarded pilgrims.

A pilgrimage was not undertaken lightly. Even a pilgrimage within England could take someone away from their home for several weeks. Going to Rome or Compostela could take several months.  Preparations had to be made in advance.  A decision had to be made about who was going to manage any property while the owner was away. It was not unknown for a pilgrim to return and find that his ownership of his estate had been contested in his absence and he had lost the right to it. Some chose to leave their property in the hands of the church, but that could be just as dangerous.

Where the pilgrimage was a punishment, some could pay to avoid embarking on it or pay someone to go on their behalf. This was a good option for the elderly or sick. Many people died on pilgrimage. If they had come to a particular shrine for healing, they might wait there until they were healed or died. Often they expected to die at the shrine which was the goal of their pilgrimage. Even if they did not expect to die they made a will before they left home.

If they did manage to return home, they would always have plenty of stories to entertain their family and friends.

 

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The Sack of Limoges

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To celebrate the publication of Beloved Besieged this weekend, I’m looking at the Sack of Limoges, which is the central event of the novel. It took place on 19th September 1370 and is the event which tarnished the Black Prince’s reputation for chivalry. According to (more or less) contemporary chroniclers, he ordered the massacre of the town’s inhabitants, some 3,000 people.

In many ways his actions at Limoges were a result of what had happened in Castile in 1367. The Prince had gone into Spain to assist Don Pedro, England’s ally. Due to the part he played in the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, in which the English had been the victors, he was known as the greatest soldier of his age. Since he was the Prince of Aquitaine and was living in the principality at the time, he was the obvious choice to send south to Castile. Although he won the Battle of Nájera, the expenses of the campaign were more than the Prince could afford and, whilst waiting in Castile for the repayment of his expenses, he became ill. Don Pedro had promised more than he could deliver, however, and the Prince finally realised that he wasn’t going to get any money from him and went back over the Pyrenees.

After he returned to Aquitaine his enemies soon learned of his weakened state and began to exploit it. The Prince no longer had the energy to defend the borders of his principality against the French. To make matters worse, those who served beneath him lacked both his charismatic leadership and his experience. As a result of his losses in Spain, the Prince had to raise more taxes, which made him unpopular in Aquitaine.

Officially England and France had been at peace since October 1360, but the French began to make incursions into Aquitaine with increasing impunity after 1367. The Prince’s unpopularity and his inability to protect them against the French meant that many towns surrendered without a fight, but the surrender of the town of Limoges after a siege of a mere three days was the last straw for the Prince. Despite his failing health, he took an army across Aquitaine to Limoges, to which he laid siege.

Like most towns in that part of France, Limoges was divided into two parts, each surrounded by walls. One part held the castle and the garrison and the other (the Cité) contained the cathedral. It was the Cité which surrendered.

The state of the Cité’s walls was such that they only held against the Prince’s army for five days. The Prince’s miners built a tunnel under a tower and set a fire beneath it, bringing the tower and some of the wall down. The army then fought its way into the town.

A few reasons have been suggested for what happened next. The most obvious was that showing no mercy would send a message to other towns in Aquitaine contemplating going over to the French. Another was that the Prince knew that his failing health would not allow him to hold on to Aquitaine much longer and he vented his anger on the town. A third was that the bishop who was responsible for the surrender was a friend, godfather to one of his sons, and the Prince felt the betrayal personally. Whatever his reasons, there were rules about sieges, and the surrender of Limoges without putting up a fight meant that the Prince could exact any punishment on the town that he wished.

The Prince was so ill that he had to be carried to Limoges on a litter and did not take part in the fighting. His punishment for the town was to order its complete destruction and the death of its inhabitants.  This was permitted within the rules of siege warfare.

In his Chronicles Froissart described the slaughter of the people of the town, but he either was not aware of the rules of sieges or he chose to ignore them. He wrote about people begging on their knees for their lives and the Prince ignoring them in his anger. According to Froissart, three thousand men, women and children were massacred. Modern historians, however, believe that the number of people killed was much smaller and was probably limited to the members of the garrison left behind by the French together with a few civilians, possibly no more than 300 people. The town, however, was burnt and it was decades before it was rebuilt.

Almost as soon as he had come the Prince was gone and the army returned to the court at Angoulême. When he arrived back in Angoulême the Prince learned that his oldest son, six-year-old Edward, had died in his absence. He must have known then that there was no more that he could do in Aquitaine, for he appointed his brother, John of Gaunt, as his lieutenant and returned to England after Christmas 1370, formally renouncing his position as Prince of Aquitaine in 1372.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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King at last, or how Edward III overthrew Roger Mortimer

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King, but not ruling

Edward III’s reign officially began on 25th January 1327 following the abdication of his father, Edward II. Edward II had been forced to abdicate by his wife, Queen Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, following their invasion of England in September of the previous year.

Edward III was only thirteen when he became king and Isabella and Mortimer were the de facto rulers of England. Mortimer surrounded the king with spies so that Edward’s actions were constrained. Edward even had to agree a secret code with the pope so that the latter would know which letters purporting to come from the king really were from him.

Worrying Times

By October 1330 a few things had happened which would have made the young king worry about his personal safety. Edward II had been notoriously healthy, yet he died in September 1427 after only eight months of imprisonment and his body, contrary to custom, was not displayed before it was buried. This led many to believe that he had been murdered on Mortimer’s orders.

In March 1330 Edward III had been forced to acquiesce to the execution of his uncle, the Earl of Kent, an event so terrible and unexpected that it proved difficult to find someone willing to carry out the execution.

On 15th June 1330 Edward of Woodstock, Edward III’s first son, was born. This did not necessarily increase Edward’s immediate danger. It was not unusual for children, even the children of kings, to die very young. Of Edward’s thirteen children, four lived no more than a few of days and only six reached their twenties. If  Mortimer wanted a boy he could manipulate until he was of an age to rule in his own right, they would have to make sure they chose the right one before they disposed of Edward.

What did present an immediate danger to Edward was the rumour that his mother was pregnant. During the previous four years Mortimer had been behaving as if he were the king, even taking precedence over the king at public events. If he were to have a son by Isabella, his ambition was such that he might depose (and kill) Edward in his son’s favour. He had many supporters, so such a possibly would not have been unthinkable to a man who had already deposed a king.

The big question mark in all of this is how far Isabella would have gone along with her lover. She was close to her son and it’s difficult to imagine her agreeing either to his deposition or his murder, even if she was carrying Mortimer’s child. This in turn raises the question of how much influence she had over Mortimer by this stage.

The king takes action

Regardless of whether he thought his mother could prevent his being killed or not, Edward was sufficiently concerned to lead a few trusted men against Mortimer on the evening of 19th October 1330. Mortimer had been alerted by his spies that something was being planned, but they didn’t know the details. Mortimer did everything he could to ensure his own safety. Many of the king’s closest companions had been questioned. Edward’s supporters were not permitted to lodge in Nottingham Castle, where the king, Mortimer and Queen Isabella were staying. The castle guards were told to obey Mortimer’s orders, not those of the king, and Queen Isabella held the keys to the castle. All of these things were, of course, an insult to the king.

The king’s friends, led by William Montague, rode out of Nottingham Castle very conspicuously and re-entered the castle secretly through a small gate which had been left open for them. They joined the king, and Mortimer was arrested. Edward wanted to kill him there and then, but cooler heads prevailed and Mortimer was taken away to London where he was tried. He was hanged just over a month after his arrest.

 

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What did peasants eat?

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about table manners in the fourteenth century. Participants at a feast were expected to behave in a certain way, but such good manners were not expected lower down the social scale. Equally, a peasant was not going to be eating the same food as his, or her, lord, nor were they going to be feasting, with the occasional exception of Christmas. What these people ate was of little interest to the chroniclers or those who recorded recipes, so the information available is sparse.

Bread was the basic foodstuff, eaten by everyone. What it was made of varied according to the wealth and location of the person eating it. The flour used by peasants was coarser and grittier than what would have been used at the manor house. The lord ate paynedemain, or demesne bread, made from flour which had been sieved many times. Peasants were more likely to eat maslin, which was made from mixed wheat and rye, or horse bread, made from peas, beans and any grain that was available. As well as being a food in its own right, bread was also used to thicken sauces and stews.

Everyone ate pottage. This was a broth containing meat and/or vegetables with herbs, cereals and pulses. What went into the pottage depended, again,  on who was eating it, or when it was being eaten. During Lent or on fast days it would not contain meat. Its constitution would either be thick or very thick. If the latter, it could be sliced. Pottages tended to feature vegetables more heavily than meat. Common vegetables were cabbages, leeks, lettuces, onions, garlic, turnips, carrots and peas.  All could be included in a pottage. Unlike today vegetables were available seasonally and not all year round. A pottage made in spring would not be the same as one made in autumn. Herbs would also be added for flavouring.

Fish was another important part of the diet. This usually meant salted or pickled herrings for the poor. Only the wealthy or those living on the coast had access to fresh fish. People who lived inland might obtain fresh fish by paying a fee to the lord in order to fish in his river, or by poaching.

Most peasants kept pigs for meat. These foraged all year and did not need fodder in the winter months. A pig could be killed and its meat pickled or cured so that the peasant had meat during the winter. Cattle, sheep and goats required fodder, so were unlikely to be kept for meat, although they would be kept for milk in order to make butter and cheese. Chickens were also too valuable for peasants to eat, since they produced eggs. Peasants could, however, catch wild birds for consumption.

Possibly the biggest difference between a peasant’s food and that of his lord was the lack of spices. Herbs can only do so much to add flavour to food, but spices can do more. Most spices had to be imported, so were beyond the purse of all but the wealthiest peasant.

As I wrote last week, ale was an important part of the diet and was drunk by all levels of society.

 

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The Alewife

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If you wanted an alcoholic drink in the fourteenth century you had two choices: ale or wine. An alchemist had discovered how to distil alcohol in the middle of the century, but its use was limited to the making of medicines and the process was not widely known.

Wine was for the wealthy, but everyone drank ale. You couldn’t just go to the pub and buy a pint, though. Where you went depended on who was brewing it. In the countryside, where the vast majority of the population lived, brewing was a domestic occupation usually carried out by women. Women brewed ale for their family, but some brewed more than was needed so that it could be sold. When a batch was ready, neighbours would be able to go into the alewife’s home and buy some. Children as well as adults drank ale, as it was safer than drinking water. Although water was used in the brewing process, it was boiled.

The ale-making process was very straightforward. Barley, wheat or oats could be used, but barley was the most common. The germinated grains were ground to make a malt, which was mixed with boiling water. It was left overnight, then strained. Herbs and yeast were added, but hops were not used until the fifteenth century. Ale was ready to drink within twenty-four hours and went off within a week. It did not travel, so people went to it rather than the other way round.

Small beer was the weak ale brewed for daily use. It had to be weak since children and labourers drank it all day. Life was dangerous enough without inebriated ploughmen, thatchers, smiths or others trying to ply their trades. Celebrations demanded a stronger brew.

Ale was a sweeter drink than beer. Ale could be flavoured with all kinds of herbs: heathers, sage or nettles, for example. Beer (made with hops) began to come into England from the Low Countries at the end of the fourteenth century. It was the hops that gave beer its bitter flavour and enabled it to be kept for longer.

Ale was an important part of the diet (providing necessary calories) and its price, like that of bread, was regulated by law. The village ale taster, like the reeve, was elected by the villagers. It was the ale taster’s job to ensure that any ale sold by a brewster was made to the correct standard (not too strong and not too weak), that the correct price was charged and that the correct measures were used. The brewster was supposed to call for the ale taster before any ale was sold, but many did not and there are records of women being called before the manorial courts for having failed to do so.

In towns, ale houses, usually run by women, sold only ale, not wine. They might also sell simple food such as bread, cheese or pies. They tended to be rather dirty establishments, whose customers were at the lower end of the social scale. Taverns, on the other hand, sold only wine, not ale. They attracted better-off people and were, generally, cleaner than ale houses.

 

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The Medieval Solar

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I wrote a while ago about the hall in a medieval house or castle. Because the hall was a very public place with many busy people doing something there or walking through, lords in large houses and castles needed somewhere else to conduct their private business and to spend their days.

The hall was not necessarily the most pleasant place to sit in all day. Meals were served there, which usually meant that it was not far from the kitchen and cooking smells infiltrated the hall. Most of the household spent their days there, unless they had reason to be elsewhere, which meant it could be noisy and crowded.

If he was wealthy enough, the lord had a solar to which he could withdraw. Here he would have privacy and quiet. Although there was not a great sense of privacy earlier in the Middle Ages, it was becoming important by the end of the fourteenth century. In addition there would always be business that the lord would not want to be known by others.

The solar was the room in which the lord spent most of his time when he was indoors. Most importantly, it contained his bed. He was the only one, except possibly his wife, to have his own bedchamber, let alone his own bed. It would be a large bed and, when he travelled, it would be taken down and travel with him.

Where there was a solar it was upstairs on the first floor. Usually it would have a fireplace, demonstrating the status of the man whose room it was.

Some solars had windows looking down into the hall so that the lord could see what was happening in his absence. His clothes would be stored there in a large chest. He would also have a chair, with cushions and expensive fabric. He was probably the only one in the house to have a chair. Everyone else who was permitted to sit had to make to with a stool. Members of his own family, however, might also have chairs.

The name ‘solar’ doesn’t, surprisingly, relate to the sun, although many solars were built so that they got as much sunlight as possible. Rather it comes from ‘seul’ the French word meaning ‘alone’. It was the place where the lord could be alone.

Along with the hall, it was the most impressive room in the house. Guests and visitors were often received there. The room would be furnished luxuriously in accordance with the lord’s status and wealth. The floor might be tiled, rather than wooden. Elaborate windows might be glazed. There might be tapestries on the walls. All of these were very expensive. It was, ultimately, the place where the lord would know that he was lord.

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