Category Archives: Medieval Life

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

Amazon

6 Comments

Filed under Medieval Commerce, Medieval Life, Medieval Travel

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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

Amazon

23 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Commerce, Medieval Kings, Medieval Life

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

Amazon

27 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life, Medieval Travel

Medieval Itinerary

In the six years that I’ve been writing this blog, one post has been far and away the most popular. It’s about travelling in the Middle Ages and it’s viewed several times a day. In this post I’d like to concentrate on one particular aspect of medieval travel that I mentioned in that post, but didn’t cover in much detail: the itinerary.

In the fourteenth century, most people knew how to get to their nearest town without too much bother They probably went to markets and fairs there fairly often and didn’t need help to find their way. Some of them might even have known the way to the nearest cathedral or shrine. What would have been difficult was going much further, as it would be for us. I don’t need a map or a satnav to find my way to my diocesan cathedral, but if I wanted to go to a cathedral a bit further afield, or to another town, I would find either useful.

Satnavs weren’t available in the Middle Ages and neither were maps, really. They were few and far between and not much use for helping a traveller get from A to B. They were not to scale and were inconsistent. The artists who drew them weren’t always sure where one town was in relation to another and rivers took up rather more space on the page than they did in the landscape.

What could you do then, if you were called to join an army 200 miles from where you lived, or if you set off on a pilgrimage or if you wanted to transport your goods from one side of Europe to the other. If you could read, you used an itinerary. If you couldn’t read, you still used one, but you’d have to memorise it before you set off, or borrow it and hope you could find someone who could read at each place you passed through.

An itinerary was essentially a list of places between A and B that showed the distance between each one. Usually they were very long and narrow and were rolled up when not in use. Suppose I received a message to visit the king at Windsor. It’s a journey of about 60 miles from my home. I’m not going to be able to do it in a day and all I know is that it’s somewhere in the north, but everywhere is in the north from the south coast. My itinerary might look a little like this:
Winchester 12
Popham 11
Basing 10
Witney Priory 8
Easthamptstead 10
Windsor 10
I can get to Winchester easily, because I’ve been there many times, and I know how long the journey takes, but once I’m there I have to find someone who can show me the road to take for Popham. When I get to Popham, I have to aske the way to Basing and so on until I arrive, somewhat travelworn, in Windsor to await the king’s pleasure.

This example is entirely made up and a medieval itinerary might not have been as direct as my route, although modern roads tend to follow old routes fairly closely. It might have shown places that were further apart or closer together. Some itineraries included diversions. The Itineraire de Bruges, for example, showed the route from Paris to Dijon and you could either go through Provins, or avoid it. This might have something to do with where you preferred to cross the Seine.

You can see from this that I don’t need a map at all. All I need is a list of places and a good idea of how long it will take me to walk or ride 10 miles, or whatever the distance is. If I should wander off the road, I’m bound to encounter someone, unless it’s in the depths of winter, who can set me on the right path.

Sources:
Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval 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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

Amazon

25 Comments

Filed under Medieval Life, Medieval Travel

Medieval Lent

Saxon Rood

Since we’ve just entered Lent, I thought we’d have a look at what happened during this period in the Middle Ages. When we think about Lent as it was experienced seven hundred years ago, we tend to focus on the fasting aspect. Meat, milk (cream and butter), and eggs were banned, which, as I’ve said in other posts, probably wasn’t much of a change for most people who struggled to get meat much of the time. What we rarely think about is what Lent meant to a medieval person. Today many people think that Lent is just about giving up chocolate or television or something else that’s reasonably important to them, but people in the Middle Ages knew that giving up things was to help them to reflect on the meaning of Lent.

So, what was, and is, Lent? It’s the forty days before Easter and is a very sombre time in the church calendar. It leads to the despair of the Crucifixion and, ultimately, to the joy of Easter Day. Like Easter, it doesn’t have fixed dates. It takes as its model the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness and is a time of sacrifice and deprivation. It lasts from Ash Wednesday until the end of Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday.

Before Ash Wednesday, there is Shrove Tuesday. In the Middle Ages this wasn’t a single day but a longer period known as Shrovetide, when people confessed their sins so that they could begin the Lenten fast having repented, received absolution and done penance. This is the meaning of the word ‘shrive’ from which ‘shrove’ is derived. Even in a small village it would probably have taken the priest longer than one day to hear everyone’s confession. Shrove Tuesday was the last day on which meat, milk and eggs could be consumed and in some countries it turned into a bit of a party – Carnival. That’s not the case in England, where it was a fairly serious day until the Reformation. That’s when the tradition of making pancakes to use the last of the eggs and the butter began.

The other thing they were supposed to abstain from during Lent was sex. Who knows now how strictly that particular injunction was observed? Since most people, even married couples, had no privacy, I suspect that it was … for the most part. No one could get married in Lent and it’s still something that many churches aren’t keen on. These days, though, it’s more for practical reasons than spiritual ones. Lent is an austere time and churches can’t be decorated as some couples might wish.

This many centuries later, it’s really hard to know what people thought about Lent, but they wouldn’t have thought it was just about what they couldn’t eat, or couldn’t do. The church was the centre of everyone’s life and everyone grew up going to church on Sundays and feast days. The parish priest was always there and there was probably a monastery or convent not far away. Mendicant friars might have visited the parish and preached. Parishioners heard sermons and, even if their priest didn’t have access to a Bible, they learned enough about the cycle of the church year to understand the meaning of Lent. They would have understood that it was a time of reflection and preparation. Fasting was only something that would aid this; it was not the most important aspect of Lent.

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

9 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Food, Medieval Life, The Medieval Church

De Charny and Chivalry

Perrin Remiet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Geoffroi de Charny literally wrote the book on chivalry. In fact, he wrote three. It’s not known, however, how much what he wrote reflected or influenced the behaviour and beliefs of fourteenth-century French knights.

Chivalry and knighthood underwent many changes in France during the fourteenth century, beginning with the destruction of the Templars during de Charny’s childhood at the beginning of the century. If the soldier monks couldn’t survive, what hope could there be for the ordinary knight?

As he grew up, it must have been obvious to de Charny that French knights were missing an essential element of chivalry: prowess. They were defeated by the English at Sluys (1340), Crécy (1346) and Calais (1347). They could no longer protect France even against one of the least powerful countries in Europe.

Loyalty to the king, another aspect of chivalry, had been undermined by the change of dynastic house. In 1328 the Capetians had died out, although Edward III was the nephew of the last three Capetian kings, and Philippe VI, a Valois, did not instil as much loyalty in his knights as his predecessors had done. This loss of loyalty contributed to Philippe’s inability to protect his kingdom against his counter-claimant to the French crown, Edward III. The knights in French armies were more interested in their personal glory and gain than in supporting their king.

Philippe’s son, Jean II, recognised the need for reform probably even before his father’s defeat at Crécy. This led him to create the Order of the Star in 1352, two years after he became king. As part of this reform, he asked de Charny to write about chivalry.

De Charny wrote three book: Demandes pour la joute, les tournois et la guerre, Le livre Charny, and Le livre de chevalerie. The first is a series of questions about jousts, tournaments and war. There are no answers, so it’s possibly a book intended to provoke discussion between knights or between squires and their teachers. The Livre Charny is in verse and is about the chivalrous life and the qualities required of a knight. The Livre de chevalerie is his most famous work and is an examination of what it means to be a knight and how a knight should behave.

All were probably dictated, possibly while de Charny was a prisoner in England in 1350 to 1351. They were written in French rather than Latin, so were not meant to be academic works, but accessible to knights. They’re not great works of literature, but they are interesting historically. There’s little evidence that they had much of a readership even in the fourteenth century, but they show what the man who was acknowledged as one of the most chivalrous men of his age thought about chivalry.

There was a constant tension between knights and clergy as to who had the higher calling. Medieval society was divided into three: those who prayed, those who fought and those who laboured. Publicly, everyone said that the clergy was the most important class, but there were obviously different private opinions. Being pious didn’t stop de Charny from being critical of the church, although he retracted a little by writing that people shouldn’t be critical. It’s obvious from his writing, however, that he clearly thought being a knight was a holy calling and that being a knight could be a form of martyrdom.

In his writing he emphasised how hard it was to be a knight. A knight had to train his body all the time and could not have an easy life. He also risked everything in battle. At the very least a knight could expect to be wounded or to break some bones while on campaign. De Charny also touched on the mental aspects of a knight seeing his friends wounded or killed.

When de Charny marched to battle near Poitiers in 1356, he must have thought that the future of French knighthood was bright. The king and his Order of the Star would encourage the chivalrous life and de Charny’s writings would give its members the guidance they needed. They had even sworn an oath not to run from battle.  On that day they were going to fight a much smaller, exhausted English army that had been trying to avoid battle. De Charny had even been given the honour of carrying the king’s personal banner. It was going to be a good day for French chivalry.

Sources:
The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny by Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy

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

6 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Life, Medieval Warfare

Geoffroi de Charny

I don’t very often write posts about famous or important people in the Middle Ages these days, but Geoffroi de Charny is worth looking at for many reasons, not least because he wrote a book about chivalry: Le Livre de Chevalerie. He also had the responsibility of carrying the Oriflamme, the King of France’s personal standard, and was the first owner that can be verified of the Shroud of Turin.

De Charny’s date of birth is not known, but his mother died in 1306. He was, therefore, probably born in the first few years of the fourteenth century. Although strictly speaking noble, he came from a junior branch of a junior branch of a great family. He had no land, no money and knew no one of any influence to help him. His first wife died after 1341 and his second wife was Jeanne de Vergy with whom he had two children. She brought him land and money, but, by that time, he had already come a long way by his own efforts.

The first major campaign he fought in was in 1337, at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. He fought first in Aquitaine, where Edward III was the duke. Later, when Edward III began creating alliances in the Low Countries, de Charny went to the north east of France, where he helped defend Tournai against the English and their allies. In 1341 Edward’s military interest moved to Brittany and de Charny was sent there, only to be captured and taken to England as a prisoner. He was released and allowed to return to France to find his ransom, which he did. By the following year he had been knighted.

Possibly bored by the lack of action once he was back in Brittany, de Charny joined a crusade against the Turks in Smyrna, arriving there in June 1346. He wasn’t terribly impressed by the experience, referring to it later as almost a martyrdom. He was probably back in France late in the summer of 1346 and was sent back to Aquitaine, thus missing the battle of Crécy in which much of the French army was killed in August. After they had defeated the French at Crécy, the English besieged Calais and Philippe VI sent for de Charny, who had a bit of a reputation for breaking sieges. De Charny went to Edward III, ostensibly to negotiate an end to the siege, but in reality to assess the English fortifications. What he saw made him advise Philippe VI against trying to break the siege, not that the king had any intention of throwing his newly-gathered army against the English. The French retreated and Calais eventually surrendered to the English.

The defeat of the French at Crécy and the loss of Calais led to changes in Philippe’s court and de Charny became a member of the king’s council. Since Philippe was not in a position to fight a war at the time (partly due to the unwillingness of the French to pay taxes for an army which had failed to protect them and partly to the Black Death) de Charny was entrusted with the task of negotiating truces. He was very successful in this diplomatic role. At the same time, however, he was behind an attempt to regain Calais by bribery at the end of 1349. He was betrayed and a small force led by Edward III and his son, Edward of Woodstock, defeated the men led by de Charny, who was taken prisoner again. Once more he found himself in England.

This time he couldn’t raise his own ransom, which would have been considerably higher than the sum he had paid in 1341. The new French king paid part of it, Philippe VI having died, and invited de Charny to be a member of the new order of chivalry that he founded in 1352. The Order of the Star was based on the Order of the Garter, created by Edward III in 1349 (or 1347 or 1348). There have only ever been 24 Garter knights at any one time and the order still exists today. Jean II originally intended to appoint over 500 knights and the Order of the Star fell apart after the French defeat at the battle of Poitiers in 1356, when 80 (possibly 90) of its members were killed and the king himself was taken prisoner by the English.

Once he had taken his revenge on the man who had betrayed him at Calais, decapitating him and quartering his body, de Charny wrote, probably at the request of the king, three books on chivalry. In 1347 and from 1355 until his death de Charny was the bearer of the Oriflamme, the personal standard of the King of France, which was a great honour. It was carried at the front of the French ranks in battle. Its bearer promised not to abandon it. It was an oath that de Charny kept. At the Battle of Poitiers he was killed and fell with the banner still in his hands.

Next week we’ll have a closer look at what happened in Calais in 1349, as it’s an interesting story.

Sources:
The Book of Chivalry by Geoffroi de Charny trans. Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy
The Origins of the Shroud of Turin in History Today November 2014 by Charles Freeman

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

7 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Life, Medieval Warfare

Medieval Advent

Mattana, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent does not, as I’ve read in more than one place, begin on the last Sunday in November. Mostly it does, but occasionally it begins on the first Sunday in December. The crucial thing is that Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas. Unlike Lent, the other great fasting period of the Middle Ages, it isn’t a set period. It varies in length from year to year.

For the people of the Middle Ages, Advent was a time of preparation for Christmas. It wasn’t Christmas itself, as many of my neighbours think, since Christmas trees and Christmas decorations are already appearing in these parts. Advent was, and is, the beginning of the church year and it was a serious time. It was such a serious time that people had to fast. Fasting meant abstaining from meat, not abstaining from food altogether. This showed them that this time was different from the rest of the year. It was a time for reflecting on the past and thinking about the future.

Doom Painting

Advent wasn’t just about preparing for the baby in the manger; it was also about preparing for the second coming of Christ. Everyone in the Middle Ages was aware that Christ was coming again and would judge mankind. Most parish churches had a doom painting somewhere on their walls. Doom paintings showed what we would call the Last Judgement, when Christ judges everyone, living and dead, sending them to Heaven or Hell.

Doom paintings, such as the illustrations to this post, are quite frightening. They show the two different fates awaiting everyone, living or dead. Usually, those judged righteous are assisted to Heaven by angels, while demons with sharp teeth, claws and instruments of torture carry the unrighteous to Hell. I should think that seeing one of those every time you went to church, which would have been more than once a week, would have had a very salutary effect on your behaviour.

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

23 Comments

Filed under Medieval Life, The Medieval Church

Medieval Heralds

Last week we looked at heraldry, so it only seems right that we should look this week at the men whose role it was to be so thoroughly acquainted with the arms of knights from all over Europe that they could identify them on a crowded battlefield just from a banner like the ones in the picture above.

The role of the herald developed and changed over the course of the Middle Ages. Initially they were no more than minstrels who opened and closed the proceedings at a tournament, but over time they became the emissaries and spokesmen of kings.

Their only connection with the battlefield to begin with was the tournament. In their early days, though, this was not as remote a connection as it became later. Tournaments were originally very violent, involving large numbers of men fighting one another over huge swathes of countryside, and they could get out of control. The more sedate tournaments in enclosed spaces that were well-behaved enough to be viewed by women came much later.

Tournaments were associated with fairs and general entertainment, which meant music and minstrels. Heralds began as minstrels, starting and ending tournaments by sounding their trumpets, but they managed to turn their role into something far more substantial. This caused jealousy among the other minstrels, who said that the heralds were corrupt, which some of them undoubtedly were.

Tournaments were events that needed to be organised, taking months and even years of preparation. Heralds were an integral part of this. They planned the tournaments and knew how they were supposed to proceed. Once the arrangements were made, they took the invitations to the invited participants.

When the tournament started, the heralds introduced the knights who were going to take part, praising their skill and bravery. By the time that tournaments had become a spectator sport rather than a rehearsal for war, the spectators were interested in knowing who the participants were.

During the tournament, the heralds gave the command to start the jousts. They were also the tournament referees and recorded what happened during the course of the tournament. They judged, or helped to judge, who the winners were and awarded the prizes.

Under a statute of Edward I to prevent open warfare at tournaments, heralds and other tournament officials were not permitted to carry weapons. Servants of participating knights and the spectators were also prohibited from carrying arms. Tournaments had been banned in England altogether during the reign of Edward I’s father, Henry III, for fear of knights meeting together there with their retinues and fomenting revolution. It was all too possible that trained knights could turn their expertise on the king, taking their armed followers with them.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, heralds were advising on chivalric disputes arising from a tournament. By then, though, they had an important role elsewhere.

Since heralds could identify participants at a tournament from their arms, they were also useful on the battlefield. It was helpful to know who the knights on the other side were and whether they had reputations as good fighters or were men of little experience. A herald would know those details.

At the beginning of an engagement heralds were probably taking notes of who was in the opposing army by reference to their banners, which would have been visible while the two sides were waiting for the other to attack. It’s thought that one of their roles was to report the heroic deeds of knights in battle. This meant that they had to get close to the fiercest fighting, whilst not taking part. Even heralds could make mistakes, though, and the similarities in colour of the arms of some French knights led the English heralds at the battle of Crécy to declare that some knights had died, only to discover later that they had survived.

As it had in tournaments, the herald’s role increased on the battlefield. They eventually became officers of the crown and served as emissaries, spokesmen and diplomats. They had come a long way from being mere entertainers.

Sources:
The Road to Crecy by Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel
Tournaments by Richard Barber and Juliet Barker
The Tournament in England by Juliet Barker
The Battle of Crécy, 1346 by Andrew Ayton and Philip Preston

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

6 Comments

Filed under Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life, Medieval Warfare

Medieval Heraldry

I mentioned a while ago that I’m reading The Canterbury Tales and there are many things in them that are worth writing about here. In the first tale, that of the knight, two young men are identified on a battlefield because they’re wearing devices on their clothing. Chaucer, who had fought (and been taken prisoner) in the Hundred Years War, would have known this detail. It’s probably not too fanciful to imagine that his own value as a prisoner was recognised due to the livery he was wearing when he was captured. He went to France in the retinue of Lionel of Antwerp, a son of Edward III, and it was the king himself who paid Chaucer’s ransom.

As armour developed and covered a knight’s body, including his face, identifying him in battle became more difficult. Devices were created so that those around the knight would know who he was, which was useful both for his own men and o for the knight who would be identified to the other side as someone worth capturing for ransom rather than killing. Devices were shown on shields, banners and surcoats (open-sided tunics worn over armour, as shown in the picture above). They were also appliquéd onto banners, for those who had the right to bear them.

Originally arms were very simple e.g. the three lions of England, the fleur-de-lys of France, the three leopards of Anjou. There were also chevrons, bends, crosses and eagles. They were made in bright colours: red, blue, white and yellow. For the king, gold, silver and silk would be used. Subtle differences in colour could lead to confusion, however.

 When they were inherited by more than one son, the arms had to be changed to identify that son, so devices were quartered as sons took the devices of both their parents. Hence Edward III had three lions from his father as well as the fleur-de-lys from his mother, to show his claim to the French crown.

Heraldry was also useful in jousts so the audience would know who the competitors were. By the fourteenth century it was a sport and everyone liked to be able to identify the participants. Their identities were known because of what they were wearing, but also because the heralds would announce their names. The heralds at tournaments had to know how to identify foreign participants as well. It wasn’t just heralds who were supposed to be able to identify coats of arms, though. It was knowledge that every knight needed to have.

Arms were displayed everywhere: on silver, on the walls of halls, on embroidered vestments given to churches, on church windows, on church walls, on tombs and monuments. They appeared on the knight’s surcoat, his horse’s trappings and his shield. They were on tiles, wall paintings, seals, in manuscripts, on caskets, chests and plate. It was a way of showing that someone was a member of the elite.

Heraldic devices were originally personal, but became hereditary by the twelfth century. They changed from being a way to identify someone to being a sign of lineage, family honour and pride: a way of maintaining an identity. Heroic actions done by previous holders of the arms were attached to the arms themselves, increasing the reputation of the man currently holding them. Some people adopted the arms of the local nobility into their own to share a little of their glory. In Cheshire some families included the wheatsheaf that was used by the early of Chester.

In a battle, soldiers were identified by the arms of their lord. They were in small retinues, with each retinue leader answerable to a more important lord. It was vital for order that a coat of arms should not be used by more than one lord. At the beginning of fourteenth century notes and drawings started to be made about the arms being used so that the heralds could keep track of them.

Disputes about duplications of arms arose after the battle of Crécy at the siege of Calais. If the two knights bearing the same arms weren’t in the same army, it didn’t really matter if they had the same arms. Armies tended to be regional, so an army gathered to fight the Scots would come from the north and it wouldn’t matter if someone in Yorkshire had the same arms as someone in Hampshire, because they wouldn’t usually be called to serve together. There could only be confusion when both were fighting in the same army, which happened during Edward III’s war with France.

There was a court in fourteenth century specifically for trying cases of misappropriation of heraldic devices – the Court of Chivalry. It also dealt with questions about ransoms for men taken prisoner in France. In 1386 Geoffrey Chaucer was called before this court to give evidence in the dispute between Sir Richard Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor. They were cousins and Chaucer said that he had seen both using the same coat of arms at Rettel. This was near Rheims where Chaucer had gone as part of Lionel of Antwerp’s retinue in 1360 in Edward III’s campaign to be crowned king of France. It was also where Chaucer was taken prisoner. The case lasted from 1385 to 1390 and was decided in favour of Sir Richard. Of the two he was the most distinguished, having served Edward III with distinction on his French campaigns. He had also been Richard II’s chancellor.

It’s no wonder that, when he came to write his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer remembered how important a coat of arms could be. Sadly, the two knights in his tale didn’t enjoy the happy ending that Chaucer himself had.

Sources:
Tournaments by Richard Barber and Juliet Barker
The Knight and Chivalry by Richard Barber
Edward III and the Triumph of England by Richard Barber
A Social History of England ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
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

Amazon

12 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Kings, Medieval Life, Medieval Warfare