Category Archives: Medieval Life

Medieval Dyeing

As a result of two different conversations this week I thought I’d have a look at dyeing. As we’ve seen before, people in fourteenth-century England loved colourful things, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they also liked to wear colourful clothes. Despite this many garments were retained their original colour, for example certain kinds of monks wore undyed habits and some poorer people wore outer garments that were undyed. This meant that their clothes were the colour of the sheep from whom their woollen clothes were made. Dyes were expensive, so some people made do with cheaper colours. The main colours worn by poorer people and people who lived in the countryside were grey, green, dark brown, brown-red and undyed. The wealthy wore bright blues, greens and reds. While I like grey, blues, greens and reds appeal a lot more.

Fabric could be dyed at various stages of the manufacturing process and wool could be died after it was spun or after it was woven. Many dyes were made from plants, some of which grew in England and some of which didn’t. Dyestuffs were imported into England and dyers couldn’t always get supplies regularly. They had to wait for merchants to turn up at fairs with the rarer dyes, which had to travel further than most people at the time could imagine.

Originally dyers were women and they continued to dye any fabric that they made for their own household to use. By the twelfth century, though, dying was almost exclusively a trade for men, since more refined and reliable dyes required a capital outlay that women were unlikely to be able to afford. Dyes were incredibly expensive, since many had to travel a long way to England and were classed as spices by merchants. Dyeing was a specialised trade and a dyer didn’t just have to understand dyes, but also fabrics and mordants (the fixatives). Different fabrics take dyes differently and even different weaves of the same fabric don’t take dye in the same way. I do embroidery (mostly cross stitch) and the difference in colour between a 32 count linen (32 threads to an inch) and a 46 count linen (46 threads to an inch) dyed in the same way came be immense.

Dying required a lot of water and dyers tended to live around sources of running water. The item to be dyed was soaked in hot water and was turned from time to time. Then the dye was added and the item was left to soak for a while. The two most common colours in England were red, made from madder root, and blue, from the woad leaf. Madder was grown in France and the Low Countries.  Woad dyes were cheaper, as the leaves could be picked a few times a year. Woad could also be used before other dyes on a yarn or a fabric, which presumably produced a deeper colour. Much of the woad used in England came from the area around Toulouse, but Lombard woad came into England through Southampton, which was also a main port for alum. Alum was used as a fixative for all colours and was also used to clean wool, so vast quantities were imported into England. It was mined in Asia Minor and most of it reached England via Genoa.

A more expensive form of red was kermes, which came from shield-lice around the Mediterranean. There is a certain amount of irony in people who were probably ridden with lice paying huge sums of money for fabric dyed with the bodies of lice. Female shield-lice were collected in late spring, killed and dried in the sun, before being crushed. It cost almost thirty times as much as madder.

Brazilwood was used for crimson and purple. Somewhat unexpectedly, the plant doesn’t take its name from the country, but the country takes its name from the plant as a tree similar to the one used in Europe for dyes was discovered by the Portuguese in South America.

Black was the most difficult colour to produce and only the rich had clothes that were truly black. It still remains a difficult colour to produce today. If I showed you my black embroidery threads, you would probably say that they’re not as black as they could be and no two manufacturers of embroidery thread produce the same black. It’s also a colour that fades more quickly than others. I can’t be the only person who’s gone to a funeral aware that my jacket and my skirt are not the same shade.

Sources:
Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Frances and Joseph Gies
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford
The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by 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:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

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Medieval Ink

Scrivener’s Table

I should have written this post a couple of weeks ago after I wrote about vellum, but I couldn’t find a reference to a recipe. This week, however, I’ve found three. Ink is one of those things that always makes me think ‘what thought process made them think of that?’. I understand why you would start with something like ash or soot mixed with water or vinegar. If you want to write something down it probably needs to be dark and it definitely needs to be liquid. Mixing certain types of ash with vinegar did produce a form of usable ink, especially if mixed with gum arabic, but it clogged up pens and it faded quickly. When it comes to the final recipe, though, I don’t know what made someone take the final leap that made it work.

At the top of the post you can see the photograph I took of a scrivener’s table at a re-enactment event I went to a few years ago. Although he was getting ready to go off with Henry V to fight at Agincourt in 1415 (hence the bow beside the table), most of his equipment would have been used by fourteenth century scriveners as well. You can see that he uses feathers for pens and has the necessary blades to cut and shape them. He also has everything that he needs to make ink.

Ash and vinegar served for a while, but, in the seventh century, a new, more effective ink was created. The recipe for this version of it dates from 1393 and was included in his guide for his wife (The Good Wife’s Guide) by Le Ménagier de Paris:
Take two ounces each of galls and gum arabic and three ounces of copperas. Break the galls and soak them for three days, then boil in three half gallons of rainwater or water from a still pond. And when they have boiled long enough so that nearly half the water has boiled off – that is, there is only about three quarts left – take off the fire, and add the copperas and gum, and stir until cool. Store in a cold, damp place. Note that after three weeks it will spoil.

There is so much to notice in this, not least that the recipe produces three quarts (six pints) of ink which only lasts for three weeks. There must have been a lot of wastage with a pen made out of a feather to make it necessary to make six pints of ink every three weeks and, given that it takes the best part of four days to make a new batch, you couldn’t afford to run out before you made some more. It wasn’t the kind of thing that you could run out to the shops to buy. On the other hand, it was something that everyone who used it knew how to make.

So, let’s look at the ingredients of ink. In the photograph of the scrivener you can see a bowl of small balls. These are the galls. They are made by gall wasps in oak trees and are also known as oak apples. The wasp lays an egg in a leaf bud and the larva injects a chemical into it so that the bud forms a protective layer around the larva. When I first heard about oak apples, I thought they were a natural product of the tree. Then, learning that it had something to do with wasps, I assumed that it was something secreted by the wasps. Now I know that it’s a bit of both. The important ingredient that galls provided was tannin.

Gum arabic is hardened acacia sap. It’s used a lot in foods today – chewing gum (not surprisingly), marshmallows and ‘gummy’ sweets. It’s also used in cosmetics and paints. It comes in a solid and a powdered form. Mainly it’s used as a thickener, which is its role in ink.

Copperas is iron (or ferrous) sulphate. It dissolves in water. This is the part of ink production that causes my ‘why did they think that would work?’ reaction. I can see why someone would try ground oak apples, as they’re dark when ground, but why would you add copperas? Copperas is a manufactured substance, which makes it worse. I have read that it came about because an iron nail fell into the mixture, but that seems very random to me. If you have any information to add to this, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Sources:
Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Frances and Joseph Gies
The Good Wife’s Guide by Le Ménagier de Paris, Trans Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose
How to be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman

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 Rubbish

One day this week I was sitting in the car in a car park waiting for my passenger to return and I noticed the bins. We have a lot of bins in the UK because we make a lot of waste. We’re a wasteful society. This wasn’t true seven hundred years ago. There was waste then, but of a different kind and not in the same quantity, even allowing for a much smaller population. We have plastics and paper and glass bottles and electrical goods and food, but plastics were unknown in the fourteenth century, as were electrical goods. There were a few glass bottles, but there was always food.

Even if you adulterated that English culinary masterpiece, the pie, by adding bits that no one wanted to eat, there were still bits of animals that couldn’t be eaten or used in other ways and these had to be disposed of somehow. People were perfectly happy to eat the internal organs of animals and, as far as I know, still are happy to eat hearts, livers and kidneys. I expect tripe is still eaten, although I don’t think it was something that ever appeared on my plate as a child. The blood, fat and skin of animals were all useful and even the brains of some animals could be boiled and eaten as brawn. I do remember eating that as a child. Bones could be boiled to make a stock, but they had to be thrown away once all the tasty bits had been extracted. As far as I know, there was no use for animal hooves.

There was waste in the production of other foods, such as flour. Grains had to be flailed to separate them from their husks before they could be ground. The chaff blew away and, presumably, rotted back into the ground from which it had come, providing it with some nutrients. The same thing applied to vegetables with pods and nutshells, although I have learned that hazelnut shells, left by the local squirrels in my garden, take a long time to decompose.

Last week we looked at the production of vellum, which had a waste product in the form of urine, or whatever had been used to remove the hairs from the animal skin. There were also items that failed in production, such as tiles that broke in the kiln, or leather shoes that came apart when they were turned.

Mostly, though, there was little waste. If a piece of carpentry went wrong, what was left of the wood could often be used for something else and ultimately used for fuel. An imperfectly formed metal object could be melted down and made into something else.

For the most part, clothes were worn until they could be worn no more, and pots and pans were used until they broke. There came a point, then, when things did become waste and had to be thrown away. Floor rushes had a limited life, as did the straw or hay that some people used in their bedding. What happened to them?

If there was a river nearby, some of the waste ended up there. You had to know what you were doing if you decided to drink from, or swim in, a river. On the coast some rubbish would go into the sea. In some places, like London, rubbish was used to aid the reclamation of land from tidal rivers or the sea.

If you were in a town with a moat or a ditch, quite a bit of waste would end up there, although it would be forbidden by the town authorities. In some places, pits were dug specifically for rubbish and gradually filled in. These are some of the sites that have become the focus for archaeologists.

Since a lot of waste was organic (wool, leather, linen, silk, wood), most of it has simply rotted away. Metal and glass objects are what have generally survived. Even a low-waste society managed to leave some of its rubbish behind.

Sources:
The Medieval Household by Geoff Egan

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 Storage Solutions

Cupboard, Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

Having spent the best part of an afternoon this week buying, assembling and filling a flat-pack storage unit for the spare room, I thought we could have a look at medieval storage solutions. Using the word ‘solutions’ rather implies that there was the same problem with storage space then that many of us have today, but that wasn’t the case. Even in very well-off houses, there were very few things that needed to be stored and a few chests were usually all that was required.

Chest, Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

All the photographs in this post are of reproduction chests and cupboards in the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton. I’m not sure that a house of this size would normally have had quite so many, but they’re all very striking in their own way.

Chest, Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

So, what did medieval people need to store? Mostly clothes, bedlinen, tablecloths, towels, pots, pans and cooking implements. One of the most important things they kept in their houses was, of course, money. There were no banks in which people could deposit their money, although there were banks that loaned money and there were sophisticated banking practices that allowed money to be sent across Europe without any coins leaving England.

Chest, Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

Cupboards in larger houses were used to display the owner’s plate, rather than to store it, although storage is obviously a function of a cupboard. In very wealthy houses the plate would have included fine objects made in gold or silver by master craftsmen. The medieval merchant whose cupboards are our example might have had a few pieces made from precious metals, so he probably didn’t display his pottery jugs and cups. That’s the choice of English Heritage who own the property.

Cupboard, Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

One of our modern storage problems can be clothes. We never seem to have a large enough wardrobe or enough drawers. This was not something that was experienced in the Middle Ages. Everyone slept either naked or in the chemise they had been wearing under their clothes all day. When they took off their outer clothes, they shook them out and hung them over a rail. I think this was a fairly hygienic solution, as it allowed clothes to air overnight before they were put on again the next day. They didn’t put their clothes away as soon as they took them off.

Pots and pans not in use would have been stored on a shelf or on the floor, but there were unlikely to have been many of them, as most meals in ‘ordinary’ houses would have been made using a single pot over an open fire. It was only in very large houses where there was a requirement to cook different dishes for the main meal that more pots, pans, bowls and cooking implements would have been used. These would have been put away when not in use.

Chest in Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

What, then, was kept in the very bright chests that were the models for these reproductions? There would have been some clothes, since outer clothing would have needed to be cleaned at some point and at least one change of clothes would have been needed. Since the purpose of the chemise was to protect the outer clothing from sweat and other bodily excretions, they were washed fairly frequently and spares were kept in chests. Mainly, though, it would have been bedlinen, tablecloths and towels. We tend to think of medieval meals being taken on bare tables, but tablecloths were an important part of the ritual of eating meals. Bedlinen would have been washed, so there were spares in chests where blankets were also stored when not needed.

Chest in Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

My own biggest storage problem is books. I don’t know how many I have, but there are more than 150 about the Middle Ages. Storing books wasn’t a problem at all for most medieval people. Although many people could read, books were prohibitively expensive. They had to be copied by hand, but it wasn’t the labour that made books pricy; it was what they were written on. Paper was starting to be used in England in the fourteenth century, but vellum was usually used for books. It was made from calfskin, which had been treated and cured and stretched. Many skins didn’t survive the process, making those that did very expensive. Very few people who weren’t monks or kings or nobles owned books. If they did, they would have had a very small number, all of which would have been kept in a very secure chest.

Chest, Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

The last time I visited the Medieval Merchant’s House, sadly more than a year ago, the chests were the stars of the show. They’re not just useful, but interesting to look at, with their bright colours and pictures that tell a story. My new storage unit is just a storage unit. It’s not a work of art.

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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Medieval Markets

Westgate Hall, Southampton

Last week we looked at medieval shops and I thought it would be interesting to take a look at medieval markets today. On average, most people in England in the fourteenth century lived just over four miles from their nearest market, which meant that both buyers and sellers could get there and back in a day. Often people were both buyers and sellers if they came in from outside the market town.

It wasn’t just merchants who had goods for sale; by the fourteenth century peasants were growing crops to sell and they sold them in the nearby market towns. Although grain was the chief crop and had to be sold and transported in bulk, they also produced poultry, eggs, fruit, vegetables, honey and wax. These were normally the responsibility of the women and it was their job to take them to market, usually on foot. Peasants also grew flax and hemp and dyestuffs all of which would be sold.

Markets weren’t just about local produce, however. You could also buy, depending on which merchants were there, luxury goods such as sugar, almonds, dates, aniseed, liquorice, sweetmeats, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, currants, raisins, figs, cloves, ginger, salt and rice, most of which had travelled a long way. Foreign foods weren’t the only luxuries, though. Cloths and threads from silk to linen, furs and leatherware could also be purchased.

Most market towns were small and they were controlled by the lords of the manor who founded them. They received the tolls, rents and fines from the market. Tolls were paid to enter the town and rents were paid for the stalls. By the mid-thirteenth century markets had to be licensed by the king and a century later about 1,200 had been licensed. There were undoubtedly many unlicensed markets as well.

The authorities of a market town were keen to see that buyers weren’t cheated, since there was usually another market town not too far away. Smaller market towns existed solely to enable trade. If buyers went elsewhere there would be no more tolls, rents or fines, so the market was overseen by a catchpole whose job was to look out for merchants who were breaking the rules of the market, mainly by cheating their customers. This is where the fines came in.

Markets in towns close to one another were held on different days, partly to reduce competition amongst them, but also to allow traders to travel around them. In larger towns there could be a market on every day of the week, except Sunday.

Markets were held in large open spaces, often in front of a church, and the roads around it were made as wide as possible to allow carts to pass one another coming and going. It was the bells of the church that told everyone when the market was opening and closing.

I mentioned last week that many market stalls were semi-permanent and some were even permanent. Many were housed in arcades of a building that had an enclosed top floor used to store items sold by the traders in the arcades below. Usually there was a requirement that certain goods coming into a town be stored in one place, regardless of who they belonged to. This applied particularly to wool and it made it much easier to tax the traders.

Westgate Hall, pictured at the top of the post, was built towards the end of the fourteenth century or the beginning of the fifteenth. Although you can’t see them now, there were arcades all around the bottom for stalls in the fish market. Relocated in the seventeenth century, it used to stand in the middle of the fish market, outside St. Michael’s church. The top floor was used to store wool.  I suspect that there was little point storing fish in a town where fishing was a major concern. There was, however, always the need for somewhere to store wool in a port from which it was exported.

In larger market towns, and large didn’t have to be very large in medieval England, there could be separate markets for different types of goods. There might be a cloth market or a fish market or a grain market where traders could buy in bulk, for this was another purpose of a market. It didn’t just exist to allow local people to buy and sell in small quantities. If an area specialised in a particular product, as Southampton did in fish, those who produced it didn’t necessarily want to travel long distances to sell their goods. It was better for them to continue to produce them while someone else sold their produce in distant markets. Traders with the resources to buy large quantities and transport them did so.

Sources:
England in the Reign of Edward III by Scott L. Waugh
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer
A Social History of England 1200 to 1500 by Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by 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:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

Amazon

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Medieval Shops

Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

This photograph shows a medieval shop. It’s closed. You can tell because the wooden counters at the front have been lowered. If it were open, the counter would be raised as it is in the photograph of the model below. Some shops have a board on top as well, which provides shade in the summer and shelter from the rain in winter for customers. At night the counter forms a shutter for the window, increasing the security of those within.

Model of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

Like most medieval shops, it’s narrow at the front to allow as many shops as possible to be crowded into the street, but it stretches back quite a long way. It’s on three levels: a cellar below ground in which the goods sold by the shop are stored; a ground floor level where business is transacted and money stored; and an upper floor where the owner and his family sleep. On the ground floor there’s also a hall where the family eats and the servants sleep. In some shops the hall is upstairs to allow a workshop to be set up in which the goods for sale are manufactured.

The shop above sells wine. You can tell this because from the barrel hanging outside. Literacy rates are quite high in fourteenth-century England, but not everyone can read, so signs showing the purpose of the shop use pictures or objects. A cutler might have a picture of knives on display and a surgeon’s sign usually has a representation of a bleeding arm wrapped in bandages.

Shops were a feature of medieval towns along with markets. Most towns were to be places where goods were created and traded. Although people could make much of what they needed, there were many specialised items that had to be bought, including nails, horseshoes, good quality candles, cloth, ironware and leatherware.

A market was the town’s main feature and it was usually, as we discovered in the post on St. Michael’s, in front of a church. Market stalls could be semi-permanent, or even permanent, and the main difference between market stalls and shops was that the shops sold goods for which there was a high demand in the town, while markets sold things for which demand was lower. Furs and expensive fabrics, for example were sold in markets by merchants who moved from town to town. Fish was usually sold in markets, since it had to be transported from the coast. Smiths, weavers, butchers, bakers, carpenters, drapers (selling woollen cloth) and mercers (selling linen) had shops.

Shops didn’t just sell goods brought in from elsewhere, however. Often the products they sold were made on the premises, for example by goldsmiths, shoemakers, cutlers, smiths, weavers and bakers. Butchers, carpenters and mercers also had shops, although they didn’t manufacture anything.

Sources:
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer
The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

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Fiddleford Manor — A Bit About Britain

Last month I wrote a guest post for Mike Biles’ site A Bit About Britain. It’s a wonderful site, full of posts about places in Britain and British history, all accompanied by good quality photographs. If you go there to read my post, look around for a bit, as there’s bound to be something else that will interest you.

A Bit About Britain is delighted to welcome author April Munday, as a guest writer introducing us to Fiddleford Manor. Fiddleford Manor, such a great name, is a small manor house in North Dorset. 17 more words

Fiddleford Manor — A Bit About Britain

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
TheHeirsTale-WEB

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Medieval Rivers

The River Test at Romsey

In the comments section of last week’s post, I had a brief discussion with Doctor Christopher Monk about the use of waterways for transport in the Middle Ages. I wanted to know more, so I did some reading. By the way, if you’re even remotely interested in medieval food, and why wouldn’t you be since you’re reading this blog, you should visit his blog and his YouTube channel.

Rivers were used extensively to transport goods in the Middle Ages. Road transport was dependable and fairly predictable, although slower in winter, but it was expensive.  It cost 1 ½d per mile at the beginning of the fourteenth century to transport a ton of grain. By water it was ½d. It cost more to transport wine 50 miles on land than to send it nearly 1,000 miles from Bordeaux to London. Rivers didn’t go everywhere, though, and often it was easer to transport goods around the coast on ships. Roads were useful if you were transporting people, but if you were moving heavy or bulky goods, like wine, rivers were better.

Many goods didn’t have to travel far from where they were produced to where they were sold. Generally things like vegetables and eggs travelled between 7 and 12 miles, although the shorter distance was the norm. This was as far as the person who had grown it could travel to a market, sell the goods and return home in a day. These people would have travelled on foot, sometimes with and sometimes without a pack horse.

If you wanted your goods to travel further, other people and methods of transport had to be involved. Costs for transporting goods over roads included feeding hungry animals. Most items were carried by pack animals, which needed men to lead them. The animals had to be relieved of their loads each evening and reloaded in the morning, which took time. The same thing applied to carts, which were even more expensive to use, since they were a large capital investment on the part of the owner. Fewer men were needed on boats and no animals. Boats didn’t have to be unloaded and reloaded every few miles. They were another expensive capital investment, but they were cheaper to run than a cart.

Rivers were very useful for bulkier and cheaper goods which would have been prohibitively expensive to transport by road.  London needed to bring in hay to feed its horses and other animals in the winter. The hay was grown in the Lea Valley and transported to London along the River Lea. Had it been transported by road, the cost would probably have been more than the value of the hay.

Most foodstuffs for London travelled by river. Towns upriver from Oxford down and particularly Henley sent grain on the Thames. Vegetables travelled mostly by road, usually from Hertfordshire. Barley came round the coast from Kent and East Anglia.

Medieval boats had more or less flat bottoms and could sail up and down rivers that aren’t navigable for modern boats, although it must be said that some rivers have changed substantially in the last 700 years and some are much more silted up and overgrown than they were. Many rivers were navigable for long distances even for ships and work was often carried out to make rivers as navigable as possible. Channels were sometimes cut where the river was impassable.

Using rivers was not without its hazards. On some rivers there were fish weirs in the deeper water. These were wooden or stone structures built across the width of the river which directed fish into traps from which they could not escape. Not only were they a danger to boats, but they also threatened to reduce drastically the number of fish in a river. This possibility was recognised even in the early twelfth century and there were edicts and statutes against fish weirs over the centuries. That they had to be repeated shows how ineffective they were.  

Low bridges were another danger to boats. Since these were much cheaper to build and maintain than bridges with arches allowing boats to pass beneath them, it must have been a real problem. Eventually lifting bridges were devised. These were bridges with a drawbridge in the middle, which could be lifted for a fee.

Many goods travelled by both road and water, depending on where they were destined. The two methods of transport were complementary rather than in competition with one another.

Sources:
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer 
A Social History of England, 1200 to 1500 by Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
Power and Profit 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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB
TheHeirsTale-WEB

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Medieval Staples

The French attempt to recapture Calais

To my immense shame, I have often come across the word ‘staple’ when reading about the Middle Ages and not bothered to find out what it really means. I knew it had something to do with merchants and trade, but I didn’t know the details. Today I’m putting that right.

A staple was, essentially, the only town through which a certain commodity could be imported or exported. There were some in England and some were on the continent. The practice was begun by Edward I in Dordrecht.

The main commodity for which this was important was wool, England’s largest export, but there were also wine staples. The wool staple was introduced in 1313 by Edward II. All wool had to be exported through a single continental port. Initially it was St. Omer, then Antwerp and then Bruges. Eventually it was Calais. The port chosen depended on the king’s political and diplomatic goals at the time.

The staple gave an advantage to English merchants, as foreign merchants couldn’t buy wool directly from the producers. All wool for export had to be taken to a staple town and sold to authorised merchants who then sold it abroad. It was also a way of making it easier for the government to collect duty, as only a limited number of people had the right to export certain goods.

In 1354 the Statute of Staples listed the staple towns in England and Ireland. They were Bristol, Canterbury, Chichester, Cork, Drogheda, Dublin, Exeter, Lincoln, London, Newcastle, Norwich, Waterford, Winchester and York.  At first I was surprised not to see Southampton on the list, but the combined blows of the French raid in 1338 and the Black Death in 1348 had almost destroyed the town by this point. Much later it was made the staple for various metals.

Calais became a staple town in 1363 which it remained until it fell to the French in 1558. In Calais there were twenty-six merchants permitted to trade in wool. The intention of the English government was to make Calais financially self-sufficient instead of being a drain on the country’s finances. Calais was a town in France held by the English after a year-long siege in 1346/47. As you can see from the picture at the top of the post, the French wanted it back and defending the town from them cost money. In theory, giving the town the wool staple would increase trade within Calais and, therefore, duty, which could be used to reduce the financial burden on England. The theory was good, but the practice wasn’t. Making Calais a staple town had a negative impact on the wool trade from which it took some time to recover.

England wasn’t the only country to use staples. Scotland used them and there were also staple ports on the Danube and the Rhein. They were unpopular and powerful foreign merchants often petitioned against them. Sometimes they ignored them entirely and took their goods to non-staple ports where, presumably, local merchants were happy enough to break the law.

Sources:
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Chistopher Corédon and Ann Williams
England in the Reign of Edward III by Scott L. Waugh
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer

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 Couriers

In the fourteenth century you couldn’t post your letters into the nearest postbox and expect them to be delivered within a few days. Postboxes and the postal service that went with them were nineteenth century inventions. If you wanted to send a letter, you had to pay someone to carry it. For most people, that didn’t really matter, since they lived near everyone they knew or might need to communicate with and could either visit them or send a servant. There were, however, some people for whom being able to get a letter to the other side of the country, or even the other side of Europe, was very important and some of them developed reliable means of doing so.

Probably the best medieval postal service was developed by Italian merchants. European trade was dominated by merchants from Florence, Venice and Genoa. This meant that their goods were transported all over Europe. Initially, they travelled with their wares, but around the middle of the thirteenth century the businesses of the great merchant houses got to be so large that that was no longer possible. As soon as they had to trust their goods to other people, the merchants needed to have some kind of courier service in place to carry messages back and forth about the progress of their goods, the cost of tolls on the route, and the prices the goods could be expected to fetch when they reached their destination. They also needed to be able to send messages to the people carrying their goods should their original plans change and to their customers.

The solution was to set up courier services made up of men and horses who could travel quickly up and down a single route. For about a hundred years each of the great merchant houses had their own messengers, but it was a very expensive undertaking. In 1357 seventeen Florentine companies joined together to provide a single service. Their goods were all following the same routes, more or less, so it made sense to co-operate in this one area. They set up the scasella dei mercanti fiorentini and it wasn’t long before merchants in other places followed suit.

This postal service was expensive because it required many couriers and even more horses. Each route had several couriers with changes of horses available to them along the way. There were thousands of letters to be carried each year, so the men were kept busy. The main routes from Florence went to Barcelona and Bruges. The latter could be by way of Cologne or Paris. From Barcelona the couriers could cross the Mediterranean by ship or cross Spain and go into Portugal. From Bruges they could cross the Channel to London.

Obviously, the length of time that it took for a letter to get from its sender to its recipient varied according to the time of year, the weather and the condition of the horses and riders. The merchants in Florence, however, expected to be able to get a message from Florence to Paris (700 miles) in twenty to twenty-two days, to Bruges (800 miles) in less than twenty-five days and to London (1,000 miles) in less than thirty days. This last didn’t really take into account the unpredictability of crossing the Channel at the best of times and these speeds were probably more wished for than achieved.

It wasn’t just merchants who needed a courier service for their letters. The church had one too. Letters were constantly going between clerics in England (and other countries) and the papal court in Avignon (later Rome). Letters also went between the papal court and the secular rulers of Europe. These also used couriers to carry letters between themselves and those of their subjects they wished to communicate with.

Possibly the most famous courier of the fourteenth century (although not for being a courier) was Geoffrey Chaucer. In October 1360 he was paid nine shillings by Lionel of Antwerp, in whose retinue he was serving, to carry letters from France to England, presumably announcing Lionel’s imminent return. Doubtless he carried other letters while he was still a lowly member of Lionel’s household.

Sources:
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford
The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB
TheHeirsTale-WEB

Amazon

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life, Medieval Travel