Category Archives: Medieval Life

Beekeeping In The Middle Ages

800px-27-alimenti,_miele,_Taccuino_Sanitatis,_Casanatense_4182.

Last week Robyn, from Big Dreams for a Tiny Garden, asked a question in the comments section about honey in the Middle Ages and I had to admit that I have avoided tackling the subject. Not because I’m afraid of bees; I’m not and I love seeing them in the garden.  It’s because, if I think too much about them, I might be tempted to get a hive and turn out to be very allergic to bee stings.

Despite all this, bees and their products do deserve a post of their own, so here it is.

In the fourteenth century bees were kept in skeps – upside-down conical baskets with a small hole allowing bees to enter and exit. Skeps were usually kept in a sheltered place, since bees don’t like bad weather. As a means of keeping bees, skeps were far from perfect as they could not be examined for wax or honey without disturbing the bees.

Bees produce two things much in demand in the fourteenth century – honey and wax. You might think that honey was the more important of the two, but you’d be wrong.

Until sufficient sugar cane could be grown outside of the eastern Mediterranean to make it affordable for most people, honey was the main source of sweetness in food. Wax was the more valuable product, however, and theft of skeps was a perpetual problem. They were small enough to be portable and there were usually several of them kept together.

Honey was extracted from the wax by pressing it. The wax had to be washed to remove any remaining honey before it could be put to one of its many uses.

Honey was a versatile product. Its most important use was as a food flavouring. It was used to flavour ale and to add sweetness to the porridge with which many people started the day. This is certainly my favourite use for honey. Honey has antiseptic properties and was used to help wounds heal. This use of honey is definitely going to make an appearance in one of my novels. It was used in bread making and was also rubbed onto horse’s legs when they were sick.

Wax was much more important than honey. Both were imported into England as well as harvested here, but it wasn’t worth transporting honey long distances, because merchants could not make as much money from it as they could from wax.

The most obvious use for wax was for candles. Beeswax gives a pure and odourless light. This was particularly important in monasteries and churches. Monasteries kept bees in order to collect wax for candles, but they could not always collect enough. Wax was imported into England to meet the demand for wax candles by royalty, monasteries and nobles. Most of it was imported into London. Edward I bought a large amount of imported wax from John of London, a merchant living in Southampton.

Like honey, wax had medicinal uses and was included in a remedy for an abscess in the throat, amongst other things.

Pilgrims left wax images at shrines they visited as a sign of gratitude or as a reflection of their prayers.  Wax could be shaped as something relevant to the saint or to show the reason for pilgrimage.

The king and his nobles had another use for wax. They mixed it with a resin, melted it and attached it to documents, then they put their seals into it to show their agreement to whatever was in the document.

Seal of Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford c 1218 to 1230

Wax was imported from Spain and Eastern Europe, mainly from Russia. Some also came from North Africa. The main African centre was Béjaïa, whose name gave the French their word for candle – bougie. France imported greater quantities of wax than England.

 

Sources:

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

The Medieval Cookbook – Maggie Black

Medieval Southampton – Colin Platt

The Medieval Cook – Bridget Ann Henisch

Tudor Monastery Farm – Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn, Tom Pinfold

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

 

Advertisements

20 Comments

Filed under Medieval Food, Medieval Life, Medieval Medicine

Travelling In The Middle Ages

knights1

 

In most of my novels there’s a journey. It might be a short one from the coast to the north of Hampshire, or it might be a long one, from Bordeaux to Southampton. It’s a common misconception about the Middle Ages that people were stuck in their villages or towns and were unaware of what was going on elsewhere, but that was not the case.

It’s true that some people never travelled further than the local market and others didn’t have the opportunity to travel. Villeins, for example, were tied to their lord’s manor and could not leave it without his permission, but freemen could go, more or less, wherever they wanted. For various reasons, many people in the fourteenth century travelled far and wide.

For ordinary people, the most common reasons for travelling were to visit a shrine or to fight. Many were satisfied with visiting a fairly local shrine, but others ventured further afield to Walsingham and Canterbury. Those who could afford it could go abroad to Compostela, Rome or Jerusalem. Going on a pilgrimage was popular and there was a widely-held belief that more than a few pilgrims were merely tourists, wanting to see more of the world than their small part of it.

Armies travelled. Recruits gathered at a local mustering place then moved off to join the rest of the army to go north to fight the Scots, or south to fight the French.

It was said after Edward III’s military victories in Normandy in 1346 that every house in England received something from the treasures taken during the campaign. Whilst this is obviously an exaggeration to show how successful the campaign had been, many ships were needed to carry back what had been taken and most of the 15,000 or so men who had gone to France would have returned with some physical item and stories about what France was like.

Travellers brought back tales of the places they had visited. With few forms of entertainment, men and women who could bring new stories from different places were popular.

Travel was far more common among people higher up the social scale. The king and his court were almost constantly on the move. This was a practical necessity, as the size of the court meant that local resources would be consumed quickly. The king had many properties of his own, but he could also visit his nobles. Such a visit was not always welcome, however, as it would always be costly to the host. It was unusual for the king to stay more than three weeks in any one place.

Nobles usually had estates spread out around the country which they might visit from time to time. Like the king, they would not travel light.

When the parliament met it was attended by members of the nobility, senior clerics, knights and burgesses, about four hundred men, plus their retinues and servants, all of them travelling across the country. Accommodating them was a large strain on some of the smaller towns and it became increasingly common for the parliament to meet in Westminster where it was easier to find places for them to lodge.  Many nobles and bishops had their own accommodation in London.

Others with religious business travelled around England. Archbishops and bishops went to and from Avignon, where the pope was, and visited places within their dioceses. Clerics travelled widely about their masters’ business. There were also many itinerant preachers teaching things people would not hear in their own parish church.

Travelling was not something to be undertaken lightly. A long-distance journey needed preparation – and companions. It was not safe to travel alone. The roads were beset by bandits. Often these were soldiers who had no trade to return to during the lulls in fighting against the Scots and the French.

There were no maps, or rather the purpose of a map was not to assist a traveller. People used itineraries instead. An itinerary listed the places between your starting point and your destination. If you were lucky, you could travel with someone who had some experience of at least the initial part of the route.  If you were not, you would have to ask the inhabitants of the town you were in how to get to the next place. Rivers were often helpful. If you followed a major river you were bound to come to a market town.

The main roads mostly followed the Roman roads. When these had deteriorated to the point of being unusable, the ‘new’ roads ran next to them. These connected towns which had been important in Roman times, but many towns which had become important by the fourteenth century had not existed then. The main roads were mainly kept in good repair by order of the king, who needed them to get himself and his armies around the kingdom. Other roads were often very poor and could be blocked unexpectedly.

Someone on foot and in a hurry could travel fifteen to twenty miles a day in good conditions. If the weather was bad or the roads were poor, that might become six to eight miles. A cart might manage twelve miles a day, less in winter. A man on horseback might travel twenty to twenty-five miles a day, if he had to use the same horse for the whole journey. Rich men and officials could change horses and managed thirty to forty miles a day.

The distance covered in a day would depend on the number of hours of daylight, the time of the year, the weather and where the next inn was. If the next inn was five miles away and it was mid-afternoon in winter, there was little point trying to get to it. Travellers and animals had to eat and rest, and that took time.

The king’s highways were supposed to be cleared either side for 200 feet. This was to deny cover to the brigands who preyed on travellers.

Sometimes there were waymarks to show routes through woods, but these could easily be moved to lead travellers into the hands of waiting bandits.

Roads were not the only routes across the country. The major rivers were used extensively. Most goods were transported by boat. It was far cheaper to send goods by water than by road. It cost more to send wine fifty miles in a cart than it did to send it nearly one thousand miles from Bordeaux to London by sea. Boats had flat bottoms which meant that more stretches of river were navigable than they are today.

No matter where you were going, travelling beyond the bounds of your town or village was always an adventure.

 

Sources

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

A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 – ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

 

25 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Travel

Telling The Time In The Middle Ages

447px-Abbot_Richard_Wallingford

In the fourteenth century there were no appointments for which you had to be on time. No one had to meet their manager at 10.00 a.m. or needed to get to the hospital for a 9.20 a.m. slot. The only thing you could really be late for was mass.

This isn’t to say that telling the time was unimportant. The medieval day was strictly ordered. Church bells sounded out the canonical hours and, provided you weren’t on a journey, you would rarely be beyond the limit of hearing them. I can hear the chimes of bells which are over a mile away from my house. In the silence of the medieval world, the sound would be heard from much further away.

Whilst the hours of daylight could be divided with some accuracy, no one really had any idea what time it was after dark. If you woke up in the winter you had no way of telling whether it was three hours after you had gone to bed or nine.

The fourteenth century saw many changes with regard to telling the time, but they built on what had gone before. The first known mechanical clock, powered by water, was made in China towards the end of the eleventh century. It was two centuries before a similar device appeared in Europe.

I used to think that European clocks were developed to help monks keep to the liturgical hours, but they had been managing perfectly well without elaborate timepieces for centuries. It was astronomers who needed the (relative) accuracy that clocks could give them, for tracking the movement of the planets. Water driven clocks were not enough and a weight-driven clock was developed in the second quarter of the fourteenth century.

Early clocks had no face or hands and did not ring bells. They alerted a bell ringer to the need to pull the bellrope. In 1335 a clock was built in Milan which rang the bell itself. These clocks were encased in large metal frames and housed in towers. Once they were capable of striking the bell themselves the bell could be struck every hour, even though there was no agreement about how long an hour was.

Edward III installed clocks in his palaces in the 1350s and 1360s. They were the first working mechanical clocks in England.

Clocks were made by blacksmiths. By 1370 there were at least thirty in Europe, but timekeeping was a secondary concern for all of them.  They were astronomical clocks, usually showing the phases of the moon and other important astronomical events.

It was not unusual for these clocks to gain or lose many minutes in one day, but it was not a problem. For most people the days were still divided into twelve long hours of daylight in the summer and twelve short hours in the winter, with the length of the hour varying constantly over the course of a year.

The measurement of time was governed by local conditions. In some places the day started at midnight, in others at midday, in others at sunrise (the most common) and others at sunset. Of course, this was only confusing if you travelled from place to place. If you stayed put, you and all your neighbours used the same system.

Gradually the length of an hour became more regulated, as the day was divided into twenty-four equal parts – in towns at least. Mechanical clocks led to this, in part.

Everyone told the time by looking at where buildings or trees cast their shadows. As clocks spread, it became normal for people to have two ways of talking about time. There was clock time and solar time. They started saying ‘of the clock’ (o’clock) to differentiate between the two.

The divisions of the day established by the church were those used by everyone. Most people got up at daybreak, which was prime, or the first hour. The third hour, terce, was about halfway between daybreak and noon. Sext, or noon, was the sixth hour. The ninth hour, nones, was about halfway bewteen noon and sunset. Vespers was the twelfth hour, or sunset. Church bells were rung at these times. Even if the timing of the bells differed from village to village, they regulated daily life for everyone who could hear them.

Sources:

The Senses in Late Medieval England – C.M. Woolgar

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel – Frances and Joseph Gies

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

A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 – ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

28 Comments

Filed under Medieval Life

Dissolution of Marriage

Boxgrove Priory

Boxgrove Priory

Painful though it is for someone whose novels always have a Happy Ever After ending (I don’t think I’m giving anything away there), I have to conclude the short series on betrothal and marriage with a post on the dissolution of marriages.

Whilst it was normal for a marriage to continue until one of the parties died, marriages could end in a variety of ways.

An acceptable end to a marriage was for both parties to agree to enter the religious life. The husband would become a monk and the wife a nun. Things were obviously less satisfactory if only one of them wanted this. They were even less satisfactory if one of them (the husband) used it as a means of shutting the other away. This was usually done so that a mistress could be installed in the wife’s place, often in the hope of being able to marry the mistress later. Since the husband concerned had to be fairly powerful to achieve this, it was not something to be feared by all women.

What we would call a separation could also take place, but it was not necessarily straightforward. These would usually occur because of adultery or cruelty. Except for the very poorest, a marriage would involve a transfer of property. The bride’s family would have provided a dowry, which was given to the groom. If she and her husband no longer wished to live together, some arrangement had to be made about the dowry. Should the whole thing be returned to the bride’s family? Should the groom keep part of it? If the dowry was a cow, for example, should any offspring go to the bride’s family? Should any go to her children? Clearly, a third party would have to make a decision and this could be expensive. Sometimes the separation was less formal, but either way, neither party could marry again. Marriage was indissoluble. They might not be living together, but they were still married to one another.

There was only one option for a man who wished to marry again. It was usually the man who wanted to follow this course and it would be because he wanted an heir, or, in the case of Phillippe II of France, because something (unknown) went terribly wrong on the wedding night. In order for another marriage to take place the existing marriage had to be annulled, which meant both parties would be single again, as if the marriage had not taken place.

Marriages could be annulled for very few reasons. The marriage might be annulled because it was not valid in the first place. This would apply where the marriage was bigamous or where one of the couple was too young to marry. For poorer people, bigamy was the most common reason for an annulment. Among the aristocracy the most frequently used reason was consanguinity, i.e. the couple were so closely related to one another that their marriage was really incest. Eleanor of Aquitaine requested an annulment of her marriage to Louis VII of France for this reason. This was originally opposed by her husband, but he gave way after they had a second daughter. They had been married for fifteen years and there were no sons. Shortly after the annulment was granted by the pope, Eleanor married the future Henry II, to whom she was just as closely related.

 

I’ve been asked, more than once, to reveal my sources, as it were.  I shall try to remember to do so. Here they are for this post:

Unmarriages by Ruth Mazo Karras

Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies

 

17 Comments

Filed under Medieval Marriage

Papal Dispensations

220px-Étienne_Aubert_Innocent_VI

In one of the Soldiers of Fortune stories a couple needs a papal dispensation in order to marry. This is because they’re too closely related to marry in the normal course of things. There were rules about consanguinity which were fairly closely observed by monarchs and the nobility, who would not want anyone to question the validity of a marriage and, by implication, the legitimacy of any heirs. These rules were probably more or less ignored by everyone else.

A papal dispensation is permission from the pope for someone to do something contrary to canon law. Its best-known use relates to marriage, where it can permit a marriage which would not otherwise be allowed or dissolve a marriage.

Probably the most famous papal dispensation was one that wasn’t granted. Henry VIII requested one to enable him to put aside his wife, Katherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. Since he had already requested, and received, one in order to marry Katherine, he was on a bit of a losing wicket from the start. Henry had needed a dispensation to marry Katherine because she was his brother’s widow, which meant that their marriage would be incestuous. Katherine said that her marriage to Prince Arthur had not been consummated and the pope allowed Henry and Katherine to marry.

There were prohibitions against marriages considered incestuous and the rules of consanguinity also covered people who were only related by marriage. Hence, if Katherine’s marriage to Arthur had been ruled valid, Katherine and Henry would have been related to the first degree, that is, they would have been considered brother and sister.

The prohibited degrees of consanguinity varied throughout the Middle Ages. Before 1215, when the Fourth Lateran Council clarified the issue, marriage between sixth cousins was prohibited. Who is your sixth cousin? It’s someone who shares a great-great-great-great-great-grandparent with you, or someone who was married to someone who shared a great-great-great-great-great-grandparent with you. You can see how it might be difficult to know who your sixth cousin was. If you lived in a small village, you could almost guarantee that you were related to everyone else more closely than that.

In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that the fourth degree of consanguinity was the closest at which a marriage could be permitted. This meant that marriage between a couple who shared a great-grandparent was not permitted. Brother and sister are related in the first degree, first cousins in the second, second cousins in the third and so on. An infringement of this rule was considered incest.

If you were a noble, however, you might be able to persuade the pope that your close relationship to your intended wife was not such an impediment. Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, needed a papal dispensation to marry Joan of Kent. His great-grandfather, Edward I, was her grandfather, which meant that they were first cousins once removed. They married secretly some weeks before the dispensation was requested in the hope of forcing the pope’s hand. The pope gave his permission and Joan’s third marriage reinforced her reputation of marital irregularity.

 

14 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Marriage, The Medieval Church

Medieval marriage

Bologna_marriage_women

In many romance novels there is a wedding near the end and, spoiler alert, mine tend not to be any different. The weddings in my novels, however, are not big affairs with the bride in white attended by bridesmaids, and the groom attended by his best friend. They don’t even take place inside a church.

One of the things I learned early in my reading about life in the Middle Ages is that a wedding wasn’t always what I thought it should be. I wrote a short post a few weeks ago about church porches, where weddings often took place. They were, however, just as likely to take place in a house or in a wood. Most of the weddings in my novels take place in church porches, but one takes place in a wood and one inside a solar.

What constituted a marriage in the Middle Ages? It was a civil contract between the two people involved. This didn’t mean that there couldn’t be affection or even romantic love between them, but that was rarely the reason for marrying. Marriage was often about property or security.

There were two ways to achieve a valid marriage. We looked at the future intent way last week. If a couple meant to be married immediately they only had to say to one another “I take you, name, as my husband/wife”, or something similar. Regardless of whether the marriage was immediate or deferred, the consent of both parties was necessary.

The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 decreed that a wedding must be in public and that the bride must have a dowry, but there did not need to be any witnesses, nor did there need to be clergy present. Often even these simple requirements were not met. Once again, Joan of Kent is our example. She married in secret without the knowledge of her mother or anyone else who was responsible for her, which obviously meant she had no dowry. Yet this marriage was, eventually, declared valid by the pope. All that was really necessary for a marriage to take place were the words spoken by the man and the woman.

According to a fascinating book I read recently, Beds and Chambers in Late Medieval England by Hollie L. S. Morgan, marriage vows were often made in bed. You can see how easy it would be for either party to deny that such a wedding had taken place, or for one of them to claim that it had when it had not.

Marriages without witnesses did not always end well. It would often turn out that one or other party was already married, or had pretended to marry the other party, in order to entice them into bed. Sometimes a woman who became pregnant would claim that the father had married her when he had not.

Clandestine marriages, i.e. those without witnesses, were forbidden by the Fourth Lateran Council. The prohibition was widely ignored. Despite its best efforts, the church found it impossible to control where and how couples made their vows.

If you were a villein getting married would often involve paying a fee (or merchet) to the lord of the manor. It was only payable if the bride had a dowry.

Weddings were supposed to take place at the door of the church or in the church porch, because it was the most public place in the village. The man often gave the woman a ring as a token of the dower that he would provide for her. The dower was the property he gave to his wife to provide for her after his death, but she would only have it for her lifetime. Her children could not inherit it. Sometimes there was a nuptial mass after the exchange of vows. Then there was usually a feast.

Premarital sex was condemned in public, but accepted in private. Many marriages, in villages at least, did not take place until the woman was pregnant, thus demonstrating the couple’s fertility.

The church had a struggle as it tried to control marriage. The New Testament declared that marriage is second-best to celibacy and turning it into a sacrament was an uphill task. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the Catholic Church required its members to be married by a priest in front of witnesses. In Protestant England the law changed at the beginning of the seventeenth century, so that a priest or a magistrate was required to make a marriage legal.

 

 

 

24 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Marriage

Medieval Betrothals

1300_1320ManesseCodex_hawking

In this second post relating to the Soldiers of Fortune series of novels I’m looking at betrothals. A betrothal was sometimes a precursor to marriage, but it was not necessary to enable a marriage to take place. What did and did not constitute a marriage in the fourteenth century is a different topic, but they could be secret or public. A betrothal was always a public act.

There were, generally speaking, two ways to marry. One was by present consent and the other by future consent. The latter was a betrothal. The vows made in a betrothal were such that the couple said that they intended to marry and would be married if they consummated that intention physically. When that consummation took place (weeks, months, years later) they were married. Sometimes there was another ceremony after the betrothal and before the consummation, but that was rare.

A betrothal was not a religious ceremony.

Both children and adults could be betrothed. Although it was more usual for a child to be betrothed to another child, a child was sometimes betrothed to an adult.

Children became adults at a much younger age than they do today. We saw last week that men were not considered too young to lead an army at fifteen and sixteen, and boys and girls came of age much younger than they do now.

A marriage was not supposed to be consummated until the woman was capable of bearing a child and the couple might wait for some time after that. Some did not. Joan of Kent maintained that she consummated her clandestine marriage to Thomas Holland at the age of twelve. When she was married to William Montague later that year, the unwilling bride and her new husband lived apart, because she was considered too young to consummate the marriage. It’s believed that Edward II, who married Isabella of France when she was 12, waited two or three years before consummating their marriage.

Fourteen was the acceptable age for cohabitation for a woman.  She was considered to be in her prime child-bearing years in her late teens and early twenties.

Marriages were often used by aristocratic families to cement alliances as parents betrothed their children to one another. Betrothals could be, and were, broken. Loyalties changed and someone who was seen as an ally one day could be an enemy the next.

 

14 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life, Medieval Marriage