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The Influence of the Medieval Church

Abbey Church, Rievaulx Abbey

It’s hard to overstate the influence that the church had on everyone in fourteenth-century England regardless of who they were or where they lived.

Most people’s experience of the church was within their own parish and parishes were tiny. Southampton was a small town enclosed by one and a quarter miles of walls, yet there were five parishes within those walls. There was also a friary, but we’ll come to that later. The size of the parishes, even in towns, made it possible for parish priests to know their parishioners and vice versa. Nobles and the king had their own chaplains to look after their spiritual well-being.

Many towns also housed a monastery or abbey. Southampton had an Augustinian friary. Monks of the mendicant orders, like the Augustinians, were more visible in the community than other monks, who tended to remain within their monastery walls, although even they left the monastery more often than we might think. In some towns, again like Southampton, a local monastery provided the priests for the parish churches. Even if you didn’t have one in your town, you were never very far from a monastery or abbey in fourteenth-century England.

Not only was the church everywhere, but it also influenced every aspect of life. It didn’t just tell you what to believe, but it also decided when you could or couldn’t eat meat and what type of meat you could eat. Horseflesh was forbidden, although it was a rule followed only in England. The church said that you couldn’t have sex on certain days (although that was probably fairly widely ignored).  The church told you who you could and couldn’t marry; the rules about consanguinity, however, were so complex that few people who weren’t aristocrats or monarchs, for whom legitimate heirs were important, could have worried about them. Somewhat surprisingly, you didn’t need a priest in order to marry, although the church was doing its best to bring that too into its sphere of influence. The church told you what the time was and rang bells to announce it. The church told you when you could have a day off from work. It turns out that there were lots of days off if you were a medieval labourer.

For many people the church was also its landlord. The bishop of Winchester, for example, was lord of much of the land between the south coast and London. Over the centuries wealthy men and women had given gifts of land to monasteries and individual churches, often in exchange for prayers and masses after their death, but sometimes simply because it was an act of charity. This meant that many thousands of people paid rent to the church and farmed the church’s land.

Schools and universities were run by the church and part of their purpose was to educate boys and men for the priesthood, but more often for the civil service. Most men in what we would today think of as public service were clerics of one kind or another. Some of Edward III’s closest advisers were churchmen. This access to education also meant that the best educated men in the kingdom were clerics and they tended to be the ones who studied to advance knowledge. They were the scientists and philosophers, as well as the theologians.

It wasn’t just the men in the civil service who were politicians, though. Bishops, abbots, cardinals and popes were also very involved in national and European politics. Various popes sent cardinals to negotiate with the participants in the Hundred Years War. Since they were French and based in Avignon, however, they weren’t trusted by the English and the diplomatic missions were failures.

The medieval church really was everywhere and governed most aspects of people’s lives.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Musical Instruments Part Eight

It’s another stringed instrument this week: the rebec. It’s the one on the left in the picture above. Ignore the chap on the right if you can. In that it was a bowed instrument that could be held under the chin or against the chest or on the leg to be played, it was similar to the vielle. The main difference between them, however, was that the back of the rebec was rounded and it was carved out of a single piece of wood. Where the vielle was oval, the rebec was more pear-shaped. It was also narrower.

Like the vielle it had a long neck and the strings were attached to tuning pegs at the end of the neck. The piece of wood containing the pegs usually bent away from the neck. The rebec also had a bridge to raise the strings from the front of the instrument.

It could have up to five strings, but three was the usual number. It was, as you’ll hear in the videos, a very quiet instrument. It originated in the Arab world and you’ll probably hear that in the tuning. It arrived in Europe via Muslim Spain and was popular for a couple of centuries. It’s popularity was already waning by the early Renaissance.

Here is a lovely troubadour song played on a rebec.

This is a slightly jollier tune played on a larger instrument.

A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Anatomy of a Castle – The Household

Richard II's Palace 2

Richard II’s Palace, Portchester Castle

Before I get on to the physical structures of a castle, I wanted to touch on something that most of us forget when we see or visit one.  Apart from tourists, most castles are empty ruins these days. When they were built, however, they were home to many people. They didn’t just house soldiers. It took lots of servants to run and  maintain a castle, especially when the family of the man who had charge of it was in residence.

Castles were expensive and took a long time to build. At Guédelon in France there is a construction project in which a castle designed in a thirteenth-century style is being built using medieval methods. It’s a modest castle, but they’ve already been building for 20 years and it’s not finished. Partly that’s due to the number of people working on it. A medieval building-site would have had many more. They would only have worked a few months each year, though, covering the walls against the winter weather from September to May.

A castle was, therefore, the ultimate medieval home. It was a luxury residence for the fabulously wealthy. When you visit a castle, try to imagine it with paintings and designs on the interior walls. People of the fourteenth century loved colour and their taste often seems garish to our eyes, so think about colours so bright that they hurt.

Some walls would have been covered with tapestries, another luxury item. They served not just to show the wealth of the man who owned them, but also as decoration and insulation.

As well as having a military purpose, castles were often administrative centres. This meant that the households were large and included:

  • The lord and his family
  • Knights (usually young)
  • The lord’s domestic servants
  • Clerks (both priests and administrators)
  • Soldiers
  • Cooks
  • Carters
  • Huntsmen
  • Falconers
  • Artisans
  • Stable lads
  • Men for general labouring work

Such a large number of people would get through the resources of the surrounding area fairly quickly. This meant that the lord rarely spent more than a few weeks in one place. He would move between his estates with about 50 people, leaving a garrison of soldiers behind in the castle together with a few servants.

The next time you visit a castle see the soldiers training in the bailey; watch servants carrying water from the well to the kitchens; hear the dogs barking and the horses neighing; and smell the bread being baked in the bakery.


Castle – Marc Morris

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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The Reeve


In the countryside, where most of the population lived, the most important man in a fourteenth century village was the reeve. Although he was a villein, he had great responsibility. The village housed the serfs and tenants of the lord of the manor. There were three main officials who ran the manor:

The first two looked out entirely for the lord’s interests, but the reeve also had responsibilities to the villagers.

Men who worked the land were either free or serfs (cottagers, smallholders or villeins). Serfs were not slaves, but they could do very little without the permission of the lord of the manor. The reeve was a villein, which meant he was a serf. He was selected for the position by the other villagers. Usually he came from one of the better-off families. The position of reeve meant that he had further opportunity to increase his wealth.

He came into the position at Michaelmas (29th September). This was when the agricultural year began. He served a fixed term, a number of years, and one of his main tasks was to make sure that those who owed labour to the lord reported for work and gave what they owed. He was responsible for every activity on the lord’s demesne as well as the livestock. The demesne was the farm that the lord kept for his own benefit. The rest of the land was leased to tenants. The demesne was worked by the lord’s own serfs, who were normally required to work for him for three days a week and to provide additional services at ploughing and harvest times. The serfs lived off their own strips of land, which they worked when they were not working for the lord. These strips also belonged to the lord.

Some reeves sold produce from the lord’s demesne and some collected rents. The reeve had to provide the demesne account at the end of the agricultural year, which he usually did by reading the marks on his tally stick to the lord’s clerk, who wrote it down.

The reeve was not paid with money, but the benefits he received made the position more than worthwhile. He did not have to provide any agricultural labour to the lord, and he might eat occasionally at the lord’s table. In many places, however, where quotas were required to be met by the village, the reeve would probably have to make up any shortfall himself.

Reeves were sometimes accused of using their master’s property, seed and labour provided by the villeins on their own holdings.

One of the reasons why the position of reeve was unpopular (some men paid to avoid the responsibility) was that the demesne was usually about ten times or more the size of anything the reeve had managed before and there was always the risk that he might not be capable of managing it, if it was his first term. The risk of a bad choice being made by the villagers was felt by both the lord and the reeve. The reeve had local knowledge of the land, the labour, the nearby markets, the best crops to grow and the best animals to raise, but he was responsible for making it all work together, ensuring that the harvest was sufficient for the lord’s household with enough to spare for sale. There was always a chance that an inexperienced reeve would be overwhelmed by the size of the task. The lord bore another risk – that the reeve would prove to be dishonest. To mitigate this risk most manors had stewards and auditors to check on the reeve.

If he was any good a reeve could usually make a profit from his office, not however, to the extent depicted in the Canterbury Tales. There is an old reeve among Chaucer’s pilgrims. Chaucer implies that he is as much a crook as the miller, his fellow pilgrim, since he is richer than his lord.



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And So To Bed

Lancelot and Guinevere

I recently read Lucy Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home and one bit of information in it made me sit up and pay attention because of its dramatic possibilities. She said that people used to experience what was known as the first sleep and the second sleep during the night, punctuated by one or two hours of wakefulness. This suggested all kinds of things to me, but also raised some questions. Further research was required.

It turns out that this was a fairly well-known phenomenon and was recorded in diaries and court papers. Each sleep would last about four hours and could be preceded and succeeded by an indefinite time of wakefulness. The intensity of the waking period in the middle could vary. For some it would be a period of dozing: of not being quite awake, but not fully asleep. For some it was a period of contemplation or prayer. Some chatted to one another and some ate. Others, and I find this quite bizarre, got up and went to visit their neighbours. A common and unsurprising activity was sex. In some periods couples were encouraged to have sex between the two sleeps, because they would be fresher than they would have been when they first went to bed after the working day and it would be more enjoyable and therefore more fruitful. There was a medieval belief that women could only conceive if they enjoyed the sexual act.

People would go to bed just after dusk. Lighting was expensive and there was no reason to stay up after dark. No work could be done in the fields and anything that could be done in the house required a light. This is where my first question arises. Some of the activities mentioned above would have needed light, unless you imagine people leaving their houses to go and sit with their neighbours in darkness. Why didn’t they just stay up later and do those things by candlelight anyway? A possible answer was that they just knew that sleep was better when it was made up of two short chunks of time.

Once in bed they might doze for a bit and then sleep for three or four hours. Then they would wake up, do whatever they did for a couple of hours, doze a bit more, then sleep until dawn. This is where my second question arises. Did they all wake up at the same time? If not, how could you know your neighbours would be awake when you visited them?

 Chaucer mentions this pattern in The Squire’s Tale. The men have drunk themselves into a stupor after a late night party, but Canacee has gone to bed at dusk. She “slepte hire firste sleep, and thanne awook”. Having woken, she wants to go for a walk with the women of the house while the men are still asleep. Admittedly, her governess does say that this is an unusual thing to do, but that might be because Canacee has no intention of going back to bed.

To me, the idea of a split sleep works well in winter when the longest night is almost seventeen hours long in northern Europe, but what happened at midsummer when there were fewer than seven hours of darkness? Did they still have a first and second sleep? Did they have to have a nap during the daytime?

Since the story in which I thought this could be used takes place at the end of winter, I don’t need to worry too much about these questions and can usefully have the lovers meet during the gap between the two sleeps, while those charged with guarding the heroine are continuing to doze, but I shall continue to search for the answers to the questions.

An experiment in the 1990s showed that, left to their own devices, people will fall back into the old pattern of sleep if they experience fourteen hours of darkness each day. The subjects reported that when they were awake they felt more awake than they had before the experiment.

Not surprisingly, the idea for this post came to me while I was lying away in bed.


The modern experiment that I’m aware of was carried out by Thomas Wehr, but there have been others.

The collator of diary and court material is Roger Ekirch


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Wolf Hall, or throwing some light on the subject

Like many others I’m really enjoying watching Wolf Hall on the television, but I don’t want to write here about the wonderful acing, or the fantastic buildings, the amazing script or the many beautiful objects on show, although it has all those things. I want to write about the candles.

Most period drama would have you believe that houses in the past were as well-lit as they are today when the household gathered to talk or to eat or to do anything else at the end of the day. I think Cranford is probably the only one prior to Wolf Hall that showed people depending on candles for light after nightfall and gave the viewer an idea of what that means.

Wolf Hall has had two memorable, for me anyway, scenes showing candlelight. In one scene Cromwell’s sister-in-law is putting out candles in the room where he is sitting reading. As the candles go out the room gets darker, significantly darker. A small thing, you might say, but it clearly took a lot of candles to produce adequate light for him to read. Yes, I do realise that there was also artificial lighting for the cameras, but it was a useful reminder that houses were not full of light after sunset. In the second scene Cromwell returns from a night visit to the king with his sons. They all light candles to light them to their beds.

I mention this because I read many books set in times before gas or electricity were used for domestic lighting which forget candles. Often I’ve read about some nocturnal escapade and thought ‘what are they doing with the candle while they’re doing that?’ All suspension of disbelief vanishes.

Candles can be a useful literary device. They can be blown out at a critical moment, or show the emotional state of the person holding one or be difficult to find or light in an emergency, thus heightening the tension.

Candles can also be used to show the wealth or otherwise of a character. In the Middle Ages tallow candles were used by the poor and wax candles by those with money. Naturally enough the different types of candle had different qualities of light and different smells. Tallow was made from animal fat and the candles made from it smelt dreadful and gave off a lot of smoke. Beeswax candles, on the other hand, gave off a good light without much smoke. A story using light or smell to evoke atmosphere could make much of this.


In Regency times candles could also give clues about wealth. Tallow was still used in poorer homes and beeswax in richer ones. The tallow was of a better quality than that used in medieval times and the manufacture was slightly more sophisticated. Wax candles could be moulded or made of thin sheets wound around the core, as in the picture. A third type of light was made with rushes: the rushlight. This was made by drawing a prepared rush through waste household fat. Since candles were heavily taxed, there was a strong incentive to obtain them from places other than a licensed chandler’s. Apparently people could tell how long balls were intended to last from the length of the candles used to light them, although I’m not sure how easy, or relevant, it would be to weave such a fact into a narrative.

One of the things that taught me the most about lighting in the nineteenth century was seeing a gaming table at Hampton Court. In each of the corners of the table was a space in which a candle could be set. It makes perfect sense, of course. How else could card players see their cards? A whole host of dramatic opportunities opened up for future novels just from seeing that one object.

Wolf Hall may have a complicated plot and it may be difficult to work out who all the characters are, but every time I notice how dark it is I’ll be thinking about the importance of candles to our ancestors.

Are there things in novels set in the past that pull you out of a story or have you come across novels in which candles are used to good effect?


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I write historical romance novels. They’re set either in the fourteenth century or in the Regency period. I enjoy swapping between a time when everyone had to fight for survival and a time that was equally violent, but in which those who had the means also had some respite from wondering how they were going to survive the next few months.

I live in Hampshire and grew up here. It’s the part of the world that I know best, so it features a lot in my novels. Sometimes characters are just passing through, but usually they live here or have property here.

This blog will cover a wide range of subjects. Mostly it will be about interesting things that I’ve discovered in my research or that I see around me. For example, the office building where I work is very close to the walls of medieval Southampton. There are a few relatively whole medieval buildings still to be seen and I shall be writing about them. Jane Austen lived for time in Southampton when it was a spa town and I’ll be writing about some of the places that survive that she would have known.

There will be the odd book review. I enjoy research and read a lot of books about the periods in which my stories are set. I aim to get the settings of my stories as accurate as possible, so research is important as well as fun.

There will also be reflections on the act of writing itself.

I shall be blogging a couple of times a month and I hope you’ll join me as often as you can.

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