Category Archives: Medieval Life

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Seal-Die of Boxgrove Priory

Seal of Boxgrove Priory

Seal of Boxgrove Priory, British Museum

This is the second in the occasional series about medieval objects in the British Museum.

There were a few seal-dies in the medieval gallery at the British Museum, but I chose these from Boxgrove Priory because I’ve been there a few times. The ruins of the priory are near Chichester in West Sussex. These dies date from the thirteenth century. The image of the priory is on the front of the seal and the Virgin is on the back.

Boxgrove Priory

Boxgrove Priory

Seals were attached to documents, usually legal ones, by means strips of parchment or silk laces which had been inserted into the bottom of the document. They were the medieval equivalent of a signature. At a time when few could read, or write, they were a useful way of guaranteeing that the people who were supposed to be agreeing to what was in a document had agreed to it. They were made by warming a piece of wax, pressing it around the lace or parchment and flattening it between the two halves of the seal-die, which were locked together until the wax cooled. Some seals were made of gold or silver, which was really a way of showing off the wealth of the owner.

Bronze was the metal usually used for seal-dies, because it was hard. This meant that dies could be engraved with more detail than was possible with other metals and that they would not wear away quickly with repeated use.

Seals were mostly used for transferring property from one person to another. Monasteries were often given property by kings or wealthy men who wanted the monks to pray for their souls after their death and the seals of both parties would be attached to transfer document.

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Since they were the equivalent of a signature, they were valuable objects and were usually kept under lock and key. There are tales of monks using the seals to embezzle money from their monasteries.

The use of seals was not limited to monasteries, but they were limited to people who had wealth. Secular seals often depicted the person who owned them. If it was a man, he was probably in armour on horseback (as in the picture above) and, if it was a woman, she would be shown standing. An inscription around the edges of the seal identified its owner.

The seals of merchants and secular men were round. Noblewomen’s seals were usually the same shape as ecclesiastical seals as shown by the seal of Boxgrove Priory.

Secular seal-dies were either destroyed on the death of their owner or buried with them, so that they could not be used again. The heir to that person would have their own seal-die made.

The Boxgrove seal is a communal seal, in that it was used by the prior for the priory’s business, but the prior would also have had a personal seal.

King’s, of course, had seals, but that’s a whole subject in itself.

 

Sources:

Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James M. Robinson

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

England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh

 

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What’s It Worth?

Medieval coin

Since I mentioned the bizarre monetary unit of a ‘mark’ last week, I thought it was probably time to try to understand fourteenth-century money. Even within my lifetime, some of which took place pre-decimalisation, odd monetary units have been used. In the 60s, my first piano, an upright which even then was more than fifty years old and had spent most of its life in pubs, cost my parents 7 guineas.  What, you might ask, is a guinea? It was one pound and one shilling and it was replaced by the pound as the main unit of currency in 1816. The concept continued to be used, mainly for luxury goods, for another hundred and fifty years. It was a good way of making things sound less expensive than they were, because you really weren’t paying attention to the shillings. The term fell out of use after decimalisation in 1971.

Up until the 1340s most of the money used in England was low-denomination silver coins. In the 1340s high-denomination gold coins were introduced. These new coins were mostly used by merchants for making large sales/purchases and for international exchange.

The main units, as they were until 1971, were pounds (£), shillings (s) and pence (d). There were 12 pence (12d) in a shilling and 20 shillings (20s) in a pound.  This is not as complicated as it sounds, provided you know the 12x table, which we all learned very early in the pre-decimal days.

The ‘s’ which denotes a shilling is not an abbreviation of shilling, but of solidus. The ‘d’ for pence comes from denarius and the ‘£’ from libra ponda. The first two were the names of Roman coins given to early English coins. The last was a weight.

Originally a shilling was a twentieth of a pound weight. Later it was the name given to the silver coin which was a twentieth of a pound in value. A pound was how much 20 silver shillings or 240 silver pennies weighed. There was no coin that was worth a pound, but it was used for accounting purposes.

Pennies were not the smallest denomination in the fourteenth century. If you were a skilled labourer earning 4d a day you needed smaller units if you were buying something, or your money would disappear very quickly. A penny was divided into two halfpennies. These were first issued in 1279 and went out of circulation in 1969. Post-decimalisation there was also a halfpenny, but it only lasted from 1971 to 1984. The halfpennies of my childhood were quite large, but the post-decimal ones were smaller than my little fingernail (or seemed to be) and were more or less worthless as soon as they were introduced, even though they were, technically, worth more than the old halfpennies, there now being only 200 of them to the pound rather than 480.

In the fourteenth century the halfpenny was also divided in two, into farthings. Ferding was an Old English word meaning quarter. The farthing was also introduced in 1279 and went out of circulation in 1960.

Before 1279 farthings and halfpennies were silver pennies cut into halves and quarters. Since this was rarely done accurately, nobody could really be sure that what they thought was a farthing was really a quarter of the weight of a silver penny. The problem wasn’t entirely resolved when halfpennies and farthings were minted in their own right.

On and off during the fourteenth century the groat was available.  It was also first minted in 1279 and was worth 4d. It was not popular because its weight did not match its value. In was reissued more successfully in 1351 along with a half-groat (2d).

One of the gold coins that Edward III introduced in 1344 was the noble. It was worth a third of a pound (6s 8d), or half a mark and fell out of use in the 1460s.

The mark came from Denmark with the Vikings. It was not a coin, but a unit for accounting, like the pound. It was originally made up of 8 ore, each of which was worth 20d, which comes to 13s 4d, or two-thirds of a pound.

The gold florin was introduced in 1344. It was based on a coin produced in Florence which could be used internationally. Unfortunately the weight of the coin was less than its value (6s), so did not gain the acceptance necessary for it to be used abroad. It was withdrawn before the end of 1344.

The question about what the exchange rate would be between fourteenth-century England and twenty-first-century Britain can’t really be answered. The things that people did with money then had a different value. Even if you equate the skilled labourer’s 4d a day with the wages of his twenty-first-century equivalent, you still have no means of comparison. The way in which the fourteenth-century labourer used his money was different. He didn’t have a mortgage, nor did he go on holiday. He didn’t have a car, but he might have had a horse. He rarely had to pay tax, but there were tolls and fees for almost everything he wanted to do. There is no way of saying that his shillings and pennies would be worth so many pounds today.

 

Sources:

Edward III by W. Mark Ormrod

A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon with Ann Williams

 

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Fortune’s Wheel

carminaburana_wheel.jpg

If she were constant and behaved reasonably, so that she was just and true to everyone, she would not be Fortune. Machaut

In last week’s about gambling I used a picture of Fortune’s Wheel to illustrate the chancy nature of such activities. In one of the comments Fragglerocking said that it wasn’t clear what it was, so I thought I would crop the picture and enlarge it a bit.

Although it was a Christian society, some people held beliefs in the fourteenth century that we would struggle to reconcile to Christianity. Fortune’s Wheel is one of them.

The basic concept is that Fortune raises men up and can cast them down again when they least expect it. It’s almost a protection against pride. All men are on the wheel and the wheel turns all the time.

No one knew better than a fourteenth-century Englishman, or woman, how randomly the wheel was spinning. At either end of the century an anointed king was deposed and, probably, murdered. Men who had been a king’s favourite were executed. The ravages of the Black Death struck as if it were Fortune herself. Both high and low were taken, even the Archbishop of Canterbury and a daughter of the king. No one could predict who might be next.

In the image above you can see a man being raised up, a king, a king losing his crown and a man with nothing. Fortune sits in the middle spinning the wheel. There are many medieval pictures showing variations of this image.

The belief in Fortune’s Wheel dated at least from Roman times and the wheel itself was a popular literary figure in the fourteenth century.  It appears in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.  Troilus complains that Fortune has treated him unfairly and his friend points out that Fortune can’t be expected to do otherwise. If she stopped turning her wheel which raises up men and casts them down, she would no longer be Fortune.

Boccaccio used similar imagery in The Decameron, a book of tales he put into the mouths of people who had fled from Florence to avoid the Black Death.

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Medieval Gambling

CarminaBurana_wheel.jpg

Last week we looked at the games that medieval people played, and where there are games there’s usually gambling.  Most of the games played were games of skill, but dicing and coin tossing were won or lost by pure chance, and these were the games that came in for the most criticism.

It wasn’t just the risk of huge losses involved in gambling that caused it to be frowned on, but also the locations where it took place. Gambling during mass in church must have been fairly widespread, because it was something that had to be managed in several places. There were no pews or chairs in medieval churches and the parishioners stood whilst they were in church. This must have provided good cover for men who didn’t have anywhere else to meet without drawing attention to themselves.

Gambling was rife in inns, as innkeepers acted as bankers and pawnbrokers. They would hold a gambler’s property in exchange for money so that they could continue to gamble. Many men lost everything in this way, including their clothes. This is one of the reasons why dicing was banned in many towns. Men who had very little in the way of possessions could lose them all very quickly.

Great losses weren’t limited to the poor, however. The aristocracy also gambled and they could lose much larger sums of money. Edward III lost almost £4 in one day in 1333. Using our usual guide to the value of money – the 4 pennies that represented a day’s wage for a skilled labourer – the king’s losses represent 240 days of work.

Gambling wasn’t only considered a problem generally, but it was also recognised as a specific problem in armies. Richard I banned gambling in his army when he was in the Holy Land in 1192. If a soldier was discovered gambling, he was stripped naked and whipped for three days.

Problems with gambling weren’t limited to the English. Geoffrey de Charny, the standard-bearer of the Oriflamme (the French war flag), who was killed at the battle of Poitiers in 1356, wrote a book called The Book of Chivalry. It was a subject in which he was well-versed, although some of his actions seem less than chivalrous today. He was completely opposed to gambling, which afflicted the French aristocracy as much as it did the English. He also condemned tennis, because of the wagers made on the games.

Try as I might, I have no idea why this might be, but in 1343 playing with dice while wearing a mask was forbidden by a bye-law in London.

 

Sources:

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

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

By Sword and Fire by Sean McGlynn

Edward III and the Triumph of Britain by Richard Barber

 

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The Games Medieval People Played

1300_1320ManesseCodex_hawking

Last week we were looking at medieval holidays. It was all very well having time off work, but what did people do with it? Fairly obviously, eating and drinking played a part, but there were other activities which varied according to the time of year.

Some of them were of a fairly martial nature. Archery practice was important all year round, and men practised at the butts and at something called shooting at cock, which involved a live cockerel. I assume that this has less to do with cruelty than with the benefit of shooting at a moving target.

Other martial activities included wrestling, javelin-throwing and throwing a knife at a peg. These were fun, but were also developing skills useful in warfare.

There were ball games: handball, football and bowling. Football was a vicious game and injuries, even deaths, were not uncommon. Teams varied in size: a tithing could take on another tithing or a village another village. The distance between the goals varied according to the number of players. Bowling was a bit more sedate and took place out of doors anywhere where there was enough flat ground. A round stone was used as the bowl.

On the side of pointless entertainments were quoits, blind man’s buff and skittles. Again, these were mostly outside activities. In the summer boating and swimming were popular, but led to many fatalities.

More sedentary occupations were dicing and board games, which were played by rich and poor alike. The most popular dice games were raffle, with three dice, and hazard, with two.

One of my favourite medieval board games is merrelles, or nine men’s morris. It’s for two players who each have nine pieces in two colours, e.g. player A has white and player B has black.  The aim is for a player to get three of the pieces in a line horizontally or vertically, removing the opponent’s pieces until they only have two pieces left and can no longer play.

Nine_Men's_Morris_board_with_coordinates.svg

The board is blank at the beginning and the players take it in turn to place their pieces. If one of them succeeds in making a line of three, they can remove one of the other’s pieces. Once all the pieces are on the board, the players take it in turns to move their pieces trying to join three in a row. The piece can only be moved to an adjacent space and cannot leap over any other pieces.

It’s a very ancient game, dating back at least to Roman times. It needs no complicated equipment. The lines can be scratched on the ground and small pebbles used as the pieces.

Dancing was an activity in which everyone could take part. At certain holidays this was done round a bonfire.

The aristocracy hunted, feasted and jousted. Although these were entertaining, they also had serious uses, in that hunting provided food for the household, feasting ensured that the aristocracy were healthy and in good condition for war and jousting meant that they were well-practised when it came time to fight in a battle or skirmish. They could also play tennis. Tennis is mentioned in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, dating from 1385, which shows that it was already fairly well-known in England. Tennis was the same game as handball, but was played with racquets.

Chess is another game mentioned in Troilus and Criseyde, as Criseyde reflects on how pleasant her life is without a jealous and controlling husband to shout ‘Checkmate!’, or ‘Chek mat!’ as Chaucer has it.

Aristocratic women probably had more leisure time than anyone else. They sewed, chatted to one another, listened to books being read aloud, or read books themselves.

 

Sources:

Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies

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

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

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Medieval Holidays

peasants_breaking_bread

Neither holidays nor weekends as we know them existed in the fourteenth century, although the biography of Edward II that I’m reading at the moment does talk about a holiday he took in the Fens in the autumn of 1315 much to the bemusement of his barons.

Despite this, there was leisure time and quite a lot of it. The longest period was the twelve days of Christmas. This started on Christmas day and ended on the feast of the Epiphany – 6th January. It was very handy that the longest holiday coincided with the shortest days of the year when very little work could be done anyway.  Houses and churches were decorated with holly, ivy, and bay leaves.

Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins, was also a holiday. It was the last time for 46 days people could eat meat, if they had any. During Lent there was fasting from many types of food, so Shrove Tuesday was a day for eating up what was left of any of these ‘forbidden’ foods.

Easter brought another holiday: seven days without work. The second Monday and Tuesday after Easter were known as Hocktide. This holiday was celebrated by contests between men and women. The women always won.

Whitsun (Pentecost) at the end of May was followed by another week of holiday. This was when people went to watch the mystery plays if they were being performed nearby.

All of these long holidays took place during the slack period of the agricultural year, although things were starting to pick up by Whitsun.

The feast day of the patron saint of a church was also a holiday for the parish.

Most people didn’t work on Sundays and some didn’t work on Saturdays or the vigils of feasts.

A local fair was also the occasion for a day off to see the travelling entertainers and to buy things which might not be available locally.  A fair was usually held once a year.

When all these days are added together, there could be up to 115 holy days a year, in theory. On those holy days only essential work would be done, such as making sure animals had enough to eat drink and milking cows. Even during harvest most people wanted to observe holy days and cease work. If you were a servant, however, you would still have to work for many of the holy days.

In practice, many people were denied some of their holidays. It wasn’t unknown for lords of the manor to be taken to court by their villeins for allowing them only two or three days for Christmas and Easter, and correspondingly fewer holidays during the rest of the year.

Next week we’ll have a look at what people did with their leisure time.

 

Sources:

Edward II: The Unconventional King – Kathryn Warner

Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies

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

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Medieval Mystery Plays

Melford Hys Companie

Melford Hys Companie

After last week’s post about medieval dancing, there were some comments about miracle/mystery plays, so I thought we’d have a look at them.  They were medieval plays based on events from the Bible. They were usually performed at Corpus Christi or at Whitsun, both movable church feasts i.e. feasts which did not take place on the same date every year.

Corpus Christi is the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, which in turn is the first Sunday after Pentecost. Pentecost (Whitsun in England) is the seventh Sunday after Easter. For example, this year Easter is on 1st April, Pentecost is 20th May and Corpus Christi is 31st May. Easter is early this year. This will be important later.

Many towns had their cycles of mystery plays, but only those from Chester, York and Wakefield remain. There’s also a cycle from an unknown town.  A cycle of plays covered everything from Adam and Eve to the Last Judgement, with stops along the way.

The plays were performed in English by members of guilds (mysteries) as a way of showcasing their particular talents. Each guild performed a play relating to their guild. In York the Guild of Goldsmiths was responsible for the Coming of the Three Kings. In Chester it was the vintners who performed their version of the play. In York the Guild of Shipwrights put on the Building of the Ark. In Chester the Guild of Bakers presented the Betrayal of Christ. In York they were responsible for the Last Supplier

The plays were different in each town, although they were all based on Biblical stories. A few were based on the lives of saints.  In my paperback collection each play is about twelve pages long, which would take around half an hour to perform, depending on the complexity of the props and the accompanying music.

The plays were performed from the back of a wagon with two storeys. The bottom storey housed the props and the changing rooms. Curtains hid it from the audience. The top storey was the stage. This meant that the players were visible to their audience only when they performed. The wagon was pulled to various places within the town where the audience gathered to watch.

Although the plays were doubtless entertaining, that was not their main purpose. The audience saw great and meaningful events of the Bible acted out for them and became very involved in what was going on. We have moving and changing visual images thrust on us all the time on television, films and YouTube, but that was not the case in the Middle Ages. Interior walls were painted with pictures, but they remained the same until the building was redecorated. Statues were colourful and meaningful images, but they neither moved nor spoke. There were no theatres. The mystery plays literally brought the story of sin and salvation to life for them.

Some of the plays have very funny moments. The only one that I’m familiar with is Noah’s Flood, one of the Chester plays. It was used by Benjamin Britten to create a work in which schoolchildren can perform music with professionals. In the play Noah’s wife prefers to gossip and drink with her friends rather than help build the ark. They’re still gossiping when the flood arrives and she has to be forced into the ark by her sons.

The York plays are making a bit of a comeback and have been performed in York fairly regularly over the last twenty years.

Mystery plays were not the only form of acting that people could see. Morality plays were performed in Latin by clerks (men in minor orders). They had characters such as Ignorance, Humility and Covetousness. Performed in churches, they were obviously less accessible to ordinary people, but could still be entertaining. These were the precursors of the miracle plays, although they continued alongside them.

For sheer entertainment you would have to look at mummers’ plays, where the actors were disguised by masks. These were usually put on at Christmas or Easter. The plays were about a hero who had to fight evil.

Mummers still perform, usually in pubs at Christmas. I’ve seen a performance of St George and the Dragon. The most popular and the best-known of the plays, these days it’s an odd mix of the medieval, the Victorian and the modern. Father Christmas and a doctor in a top hat usually make an appearance, as well as St George, the dragon, a bishop, the king of Egypt, the king of Egypt’s daughter and a Turkish knight. There are examples on YouTube, but the quality of the audio is usually poor, as they’re either performed in front of a rowdy pub audience or outside in a howling gale.

There were secular plays as well, but only fragments of these have been found, whereas there are many examples of the miracle plays. The secular plays were probably performed by travelling musicians.

The plays used rhyme for the speeches. Since they also included music, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine some of the lines being sung.

At the beginning of the post I mentioned Corpus Christi. It was recognised as a feast day in 1311. The miracle plays became associated with this feast and with Whitsun. The Latin plays performed in churches could be put on all year round in accordance with the seasons, but the mystery plays were performed outdoors. If the performers were to have an audience they needed to perform when the weather was good, as it often is at the end of May and the beginning of June. Even when Easter is early, as it is this year, the plays were performed on the cusp of summer.

 

Sources:

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

Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays edited by A.C. Cawley

 

April Munday is the author of several books set in the fourteenth century. Find out more here.

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Medieval Dance

Medieval Dancers

As I was getting ready for my tap class this week (yes, I know), I was thinking about dancing in the Middle Ages.

Most villages didn’t have a space large enough for everyone to get together, except the churchyard, so that’s where they danced. There’s not a huge amount of information about these dances, since they were danced by people who, for the most part, couldn’t write. Besides, why would they describe something that everyone knew how to do?

One of the things that is known is that there was a carolling dance where everyone held hands in a circle around one person in the middle. You can see people holding hands to dance in the picture at the top of the post. The person in the middle sang the verses of the song and everyone in the circle sang the choruses while they stepped to the right or the left. Dances weren’t probably much more complicated than that, although there was probably stamping as well. Speed probably made it more exciting and amusing, when dancers bumped into one another.

The carols did not have the kind of lyrics that we’re familiar with these days. They tended to be very bawdy, which was one of the reasons why priests complained about the dances taking place in the churchyard.

Another reason why priests weren’t keen on dancing was because St Jerome said that women dancing were the swords of the devil.  They were thought to tempt men to fornication.

For the upper classes, dancing was something that they watched as well as did themselves. Dancers were professionals who could be retained by a lord for his household’s entertainment. Usually they had their own musicians and sometimes they were also jugglers and singers.

Some entertainers were not attached to a household, preferring to travel and take up casual employment, but this could be rather dangerous. There was always the chance that they could be arrested. Men without a lord were viewed with suspicion. For all the constables of the towns they passed through knew these men could be outlaws.

The upper classes danced a bit and it was one of their favourite occupations during tournaments. Sometimes they would dance in fancy dress, just as they would fight in the tournament dressed as cardinals or aldermen.

A few dance tunes have survived from the fourteenth century. Here are two Italian tunes which were paired together – a slow dance followed by a fast dance. They’re the Lamento di Tristano and La Rotta.

Sources:

The Medieval World Complete – edited by Robert Bartlett

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

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

Tournaments: Jousts, Chivalry and Pageants in the Middle Ages – Richard Barber and Juliet Barker

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Writing the Middle Ages

Monk

I didn’t start this blog to write about writing, but I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the difficulties of writing historical romances set in the Middle Ages when you want to get the details as accurate as possible.

One of the main problems is the ages of the protagonists. I have usually taken the easy way out and made them older than they would have been in the fourteenth century, although I’ve been vague about the heroine’s age in a couple of cases.

Most women of the class and status I write about would have been betrothed at a young age. Recently I read about a noblewoman who was betrothed at the age of three. Her husband was of a similar age. The marriage would not have been consummated until she was fourteen or fifteen, but that seems to be unacceptably young for the heroine of a romantic novel.

In order not to offend sensibilities my female protagonists tend to be in their late teens or early 20s and the males in their early to late 20s.

This is old for the Middle Ages. Many women had had two or more children by then. Edward III’s wife, Queen Philippa, was a few days short of 16 when she had her first child. I’ve just started reading a book by Christine de Pizan who was married at the age of 15 in 1379. By the time she was widowed ten years later she’d had three children.

When the heroines are older than they should be I have the problem of explaining why they’re not already married.

In a couple of the novels the heroine’s father has used her dowry for something else and she grows older without a husband. Two were betrothed before the start of the novels, but the betrothed husbands went off to fight for a couple of years. One of them was betrothed as a young teenager and more or less abandoned by her much older husband before the marriage could be consummated. The other was betrothed to a man she loved who died in France, allowing her to fall (gradually) in love with another man.

One of my heroines is a nun, removed from her convent just before she can take her vows, and one of them lives as a man. I’m not quite running out of ways to explain away the heroines’ single status when they’re past marriageable age, but it’s something to be considered with each novel.

With the men there is less of a problem. Unless they were the oldest son and going to inherit everything from their father, fourteenth-century men had to find some way of securing enough money to buy property so that they could marry. This would take time.

TheHeirsTale-WEB

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Medieval Weights and Measures

market

I’m sorry, but there is really no way to make this interesting.  In my novels the characters talk about how far they’ve travelled, how much things weigh and how much ale is left in a barrel. In order to do this convincingly, they can’t talk about kilometres, kilogrammes and litres. It turns out that they can talk about feet, yards and miles, though, which is a relief.

Measurements were starting to become standardised in the fourteenth century. Weights were supposed to be standardised to what was used in Winchester, but many towns retained their local weights and measures. I can see that there might have been some very great misunderstandings when people from different parts of the country had dealings with one another.

These are the most common medieval weights and measures:

Distance

Furlong – the length of a furrow of a field ploughed by a team of eight oxen. It was forty perches or 220 yards. This was the long side of the acre. The other side was 22 yards.

League – approximately three miles.

Mile – there were officially two different miles. One was the statute mile and the other was the Old French mile, which is 1.25 statute miles. There were also, of course, local miles of varying lengths. The length of a mile wasn’t fixed formally until the end of the sixteenth century.

Rod/perch/pole – five and a half yards.

Length

Ell – used for measuring cloth. It was usually forty-five inches, but could be twenty-seven inches for Flemish cloth. The ruler used for measuring cloth was known as an ell-wand.

Foot – twelve inches.

Inch – the French word for inch will help us here. It’s ‘pouce’, which also means thumb. An inch was the width of an adult thumb.

Yard – three feet, but originally the length of an outstretched arm. Henry I is supposed to have used his own arm as the standard.

Weight

Bushel – eight gallons.

Chaldron – 36 bushels.

Hundredweight – 112lb except in Devon, where it was 120lb.

Pound (lb) – 16 ounces (oz), except in Devon, where it was 18oz.

Quarter (or core) – eight bushels. It was used for weighing grain.

Stone – 14lb, except in Devon, where it was 16lb.

Liquids

Gallon – varied depending on whether it was ale or wine being measured.

Hogshead – sixty-three wine gallons, fifty-two-and-a-half ale gallons. In London it was usually forty-eight ale gallons.

Area

Acre – the amount of land a team of 8 oxen can plough in a day.

Ploughland – the amount of land a team of 8 oxen can plough in a year.

Both of these will clearly vary greatly across the country. An acre in Norfolk will be larger than an acre in Yorkshire or Devon simply because Norfolk is flatter and easier to plough. Edward I tried, and failed, to standardise the size of an acre.

Rood – quarter of an acre.

You’ll have noticed that some of these measurements are almost meaningless. It’s all very well knowing that a bushel is eight gallons, but what was a gallon?

Apart from allowing my characters to discuss their journeys and the amount of land they hold, why is this important? Imagine you’re a merchant travelling from one market to another to sell your wares. You need to know what the units of measurement are in the towns you visit regularly. You will be accused of short-changing your customers if their expectations of what a bushel is exceed what you give them.

 

Sources:

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

A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases – Christopher Corèdon with Ann Williams

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