The Alewife


If you wanted an alcoholic drink in the fourteenth century you had two choices: ale or wine. An alchemist had discovered how to distil alcohol in the middle of the century, but its use was limited to the making of medicines and the process was not widely known.

Wine was for the wealthy, but everyone drank ale. You couldn’t just go to the pub and buy a pint, though. Where you went depended on who was brewing it. In the countryside, where the vast majority of the population lived, brewing was a domestic occupation usually carried out by women. Women brewed ale for their family, but some brewed more than was needed so that it could be sold. When a batch was ready, neighbours would be able to go into the alewife’s home and buy some. Children as well as adults drank ale, as it was safer than drinking water. Although water was used in the brewing process, it was boiled.

The ale-making process was very straightforward. Barley, wheat or oats could be used, but barley was the most common. The germinated grains were ground to make a malt, which was mixed with boiling water. It was left overnight, then strained. Herbs and yeast were added, but hops were not used until the fifteenth century. Ale was ready to drink within twenty-four hours and went off within a week. It did not travel, so people went to it rather than the other way round.

Small beer was the weak ale brewed for daily use. It had to be weak since children and labourers drank it all day. Life was dangerous enough without inebriated ploughmen, thatchers, smiths or others trying to ply their trades. Celebrations demanded a stronger brew.

Ale was a sweeter drink than beer. Ale could be flavoured with all kinds of herbs: heathers, sage or nettles, for example. Beer (made with hops) began to come into England from the Low Countries at the end of the fourteenth century. It was the hops that gave beer its bitter flavour and enabled it to be kept for longer.

Ale was an important part of the diet (providing necessary calories) and its price, like that of bread, was regulated by law. The village ale taster, like the reeve, was elected by the villagers. It was the ale taster’s job to ensure that any ale sold by a brewster was made to the correct standard (not too strong and not too weak), that the correct price was charged and that the correct measures were used. The brewster was supposed to call for the ale taster before any ale was sold, but many did not and there are records of women being called before the manorial courts for having failed to do so.

In towns, ale houses, usually run by women, sold only ale, not wine. They might also sell simple food such as bread, cheese or pies. They tended to be rather dirty establishments, whose customers were at the lower end of the social scale. Taverns, on the other hand, sold only wine, not ale. They attracted better-off people and were, generally, cleaner than ale houses.



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval

The Medieval Solar


I wrote a while ago about the hall in a medieval house or castle. Because the hall was a very public place with many busy people doing something there or walking through, lords in large houses and castles needed somewhere else to conduct their private business and to spend their days.

The hall was not necessarily the most pleasant place to sit in all day. Meals were served there, which usually meant that it was not far from the kitchen and cooking smells infiltrated the hall. Most of the household spent their days there, unless they had reason to be elsewhere, which meant it could be noisy and crowded.

If he was wealthy enough, the lord had a solar to which he could withdraw. Here he would have privacy and quiet. Although there was not a great sense of privacy earlier in the Middle Ages, it was becoming important by the end of the fourteenth century. In addition there would always be business that the lord would not want to be known by others.

The solar was the room in which the lord spent most of his time when he was indoors. Most importantly, it contained his bed. He was the only one, except possibly his wife, to have his own bedchamber, let alone his own bed. It would be a large bed and, when he travelled, it would be taken down and travel with him.

Where there was a solar it was upstairs on the first floor. Usually it would have a fireplace, demonstrating the status of the man whose room it was.

Some solars had windows looking down into the hall so that the lord could see what was happening in his absence. His clothes would be stored there in a large chest. He would also have a chair, with cushions and expensive fabric. He was probably the only one in the house to have a chair. Everyone else who was permitted to sit had to make to with a stool. Members of his own family, however, might also have chairs.

The name ‘solar’ doesn’t, surprisingly, relate to the sun, although many solars were built so that they got as much sunlight as possible. Rather it comes from ‘seul’ the French word meaning ‘alone’. It was the place where the lord could be alone.

Along with the hall, it was the most impressive room in the house. Guests and visitors were often received there. The room would be furnished luxuriously in accordance with the lord’s status and wealth. The floor might be tiled, rather than wooden. Elaborate windows might be glazed. There might be tapestries on the walls. All of these were very expensive. It was, ultimately, the place where the lord would know that he was lord.


Filed under Fourteenth Century

No Spitting, No Belching


In many of my novels the characters sit down to eat a meal, usually at a feast of some kind. Whilst the food eaten on such occasions is interesting, and there will probably be a post at some point about it, it’s at people’s behaviour during meals that I want to look.

There are medieval ‘etiquette’ manuals describing how people were supposed to behave at table, which is a good indication that many people did not act in what was considered an acceptable way. The recommendations and prohibitions in these manuals relate mainly to personal cleanliness, which might be a surprise to those who believe that people in the fourteenth century never washed or cleaned themselves or cared much about table manners.

The requirements make sense when looked at in the context of how meals took place in great houses. Meals were formal affairs for the wealthy, and white table clothes were spread over trestle tables. Those eating sat on benches. After the meal, the tables and benches were taken down, leaving the hall free for any other activities which might be taking place there.

Before the meal everyone washed their hands. The lord washed his in a bowl held by a servant and dried them in a cloth carried over the servant’s shoulder.  Those of lower status washed their hands before entering the hall. Before they ate, they prayed.

In some households poison was a real fear and food and wine were both tasted before the lord ate or drank, often by several people.

The lord, his family and any important guests sat at a table on a platform at one end of the hall. They sat only on one side facing the hall so that they, and what they were eating, were visible to everyone else in the hall. The rest of the household sat on both sides of the tables which ran down either side of the hall, or, in really great households, in other rooms. They sat in order of precedence, the most senior sitting closest to the lord on his right-hand side.  Those sufficiently senior would eat the same food as the lord. Everyone else would eat something less interesting.

Food came to the table in dishes for two or four people, if it was something in a sauce, or on a platter, if it was meat. People shared these dishes and, sometimes, cups. They either ate straight from the dish or platter that had been placed on the table, or put the food onto their own trencher (a slice of coarse bread).

Food was eaten from the points of knives (slices of meat), or picked up with the fingers (food in sauces). Spoons were occasionally used, but it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that the fork began to be used by the upper classes and another century before it gained acceptance by everyone else.

The list of prohibited behaviours is fairly lengthy and few of them would be tolerated today.  Most of them relate to matters of cleanliness, which is not surprising, given the way in which the food was eaten. Fingernails should not be dirty. The mouth should be empty before drinking from a shared cup. This one makes me shudder – teeth should not be picked with a knife. No one should blow on their food to cool it. No one should scratch their head during the meal. No one should gnaw on bones. There should be no spitting or belching.

Clearly, there was sufficient flouting of the rules to warrant writing them down and I wonder whether such behaviour was commonplace among those seated out of the lord’s, or his wife’s, sight.


Filed under Fourteenth Century

An Englishman’s Castle


Today I’m the guest blogger on the English Historical Fiction Authors site. If you’d like to have a look at the post about castles in England, you can read it here.



Filed under Medieval

New Year, New You


At this time of year those of us who have a sedentary lifestyle tend to think about a new exercise regime, but that kind of thing was really unnecessary in the fourteenth century. Life then was very labour-intensive, even if you were the king.

There were a few labour-saving devices, but not many. There were horses and oxen to carry people and pull ploughs and carts, although most people had to walk everywhere. There were windmills and watermills to grind grain and there were, if you were lucky, carts, boats and ships to carry things. If you were unlucky, you had to carry everything yourself. There were pulleys to raise objects from a ship to a quayside or from the ground to the top of a building, but these were usually powered by men.

Apart from those few examples of mechanisation, everything that had to be done required physical labour. Seed did not sow itself, nor did weeds dig themselves up. Meals were made from scratch, which meant, for most people, growing food or catching it and killing it themselves. Houses were swept with a broom, dough was kneaded by hand, and the washing of clothes was done by hand, in water that had to be fetched and heated first. In many places water had to be fetched from a well or river and they might not be very close to the place where the washing was to be done. Parishioners also had to stand in church, which meant there was very little chance of dozing during the sermon. There were no sewing machines, so every piece of clothing had to be stitched by hand. If you were a potter you had to turn the wheel on which the pot rested, with your feet, with your hands or with a long stick.

The only people who can be said to have ‘exercised’ were soldiers, who trained most days. They wrestled, practised swordplay, improved their accuracy with a lance whilst on horseback, ran, jumped and climbed so that they would be able to fight their enemies.

Monks who copied books were really the only ones who could be considered to live a sedentary lifestyle, but even they were supposed to do physical work when they were not copying.

If you were a member of a noble’s household, you still did not get to sit down very often, probably only at meals. There would be chairs in the lord’s solar, but only for him and his wife and important visitors. Others might have stools, if they were lucky, otherwise they stood while attending him. Servants, of course, sat only while they ate, or if they could find a few moments when they weren’t supposed to be doing something else.

Even the king spent much of his life in the saddle as the court moved from place to place or he led his army to war. He sat while others stood, but nonetheless could not be said to have had a sedentary lifestyle.




Filed under Fourteenth Century

Advent Fast, Christmas Feast


Much like today, a fourteenth century Christmas was a time of indulgence, although for a different reason. Advent, like Lent, was a time of fasting. Christmas and Easter were the two great festivals of the year, celebrating respectively Christ’s birth and death. They were significant events and required spiritual preparation on the part of those celebrating. This was achieved, in part, by self-denial of food. The purpose of fasting was to encourage reflection and preparation. It was not supposed to be a punishment.

Fasting was a common occurrence. As well as the two seasons of fasting, everyone also fasted on Friday of every week and on the day before particular saints’ days or other feasts. Those who were particularly pious would also fast on Wednesdays and Saturdays, although this had not been required since the beginning of the thirteenth century. Medieval fasting was a serious business and there were many rules to be followed. Generally, a fast day meant that no meat could be eaten. During Lent the prohibition was expanded to include eggs, cream, butter and milk. This is not the hardship it sounds, since few had access to or could afford to eat meat every day. Having said that, those at the bottom of society with regard to wealth were as keen hunters as those at the top, although the animals they caught tended to be smaller.

Advent is the period of about 40 days before Christmas and it looks forward to the Second Coming of Christ. During this time no meat could be eaten. Preparation for the Christmas feast could begin as early as November. For those who could afford it, a pig’s head was the centrepiece of the Christmas feast. It was usually pickled or made into brawn. If it was pickled, the process would start before Advent began. If it was to be made into brawn, the head would be boiled, and the meat and juices pressed a few days before Christmas. This latter tradition survived well into the second half of the twentieth century. I can remember my parents boiling up a pig’s head to make brawn for Christmas. Whether pickled or boiled, the meat would be eaten cold.


Filed under Fourteenth Century

The Holy Roman Empire


The Holy Roman Empire must have seemed very remote from England in the fourteenth century. It was centred around the many German states and would not normally have been expected to be interested in anything affecting England. This situation changed in the 1330s.

The empire lasted from 962 until Napoleon dissolved it in 1806, although many consider Charlemagne (crowned in 800) to be the first emperor. The Holy Roman Empire was considered to be a Christian extension of the Roman empire. The term ‘Holy Roman Empire’ dates only from the thirteenth century, however.

Geographically, the empire covered kingdoms and duchies in modern Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, Switzerland, parts of eastern France, parts of western Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Croatia and northern Italy. The borders changed almost constantly, however, and not all of this territory was included all the time.The empire had reached its maximum size in the thirteenth century and territory was lost during the fourteenth century.

Emperors were elected and the first three Hanoverian kings of Great Britain, George I, George II and George III were electors, which meant they had a vote in the election of the emperor. Although the emperor was elected, in practice a small number of royal houses dominated the line of emperors and most emperors were descendants of earlier emperors.

The chances are that you’ve only ever heard of one emperor: Charles V, the nephew of Katherine of Aragon. In 1527, when Henry VIII was trying to divorce Katherine, her nephew captured the pope and would not allow him to grant the divorce. Charles’ son, Philip II, married Henry’s daughter Mary.

The empire did not have a capital as such, but was administered from the beginning of the fourteenth century from Aachen, which had been Charlemagne’s capital. From 1328 to 1347 it was administered from Munich and, from 1355 from Prague.

It was not unusual for the emperor to be at odds with the pope, in fact it was unusual if he was not. There was an almost constant power struggle between the popes and the emperors. Their powers were meant in some ways to be complementary, but in others to act as a balance between the temporal and the spiritual. This was rarely the case in reality. It was not until the eleventh century that the popes achieved some kind of equality. In 1077 Pope Gregory VII made the excommunicated emperor, Henry IV, wait outside the castle walls of Canossa for three days. Henry had come barefoot to ask the pope’s forgiveness. What should have been a formality, since the emperor had already humbled himself, became a battle of wills, which the pope won. The balance did not last long, however, as successive popes tried to gain more secular power and were increasingly resisted by kings and emperors. This came to a head during the ‘Babylonian Exile’ when the papacy had its capital in Avignon and came under the sway of the kings of France. Other kings (particularly Edward III) found it difficult to trust the pope when he was not impartial.

In the thirteenth century Italy was riven by division following interference in Italy by the emperor Frederick Barbarossa and his successors in the first half of the century. The Italian city states were either Guelphs (pro-papal) or Ghibellines (pro-imperial) and they continued to go to war with one another on this basis long after the political divisions meant anything.

Because the emperors could only be crowned by the pope and they were usually quarrelling with the pope, or even excommunicated, there was often a delay between their election and their coronation.

There were three emperors in the fourteenth century: Henry VII – elected 1308 (crowned 1312)-1313; Louis IV (Louis of Bavaria) – elected 1314 (crowned 1348) – 1347 and Charles IV – elected 1346 and 1349 (crowned 1355) – 1378. None of them was terribly effective as emperor.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century Philip IV of France wanted his brother to be made emperor, but the electors felt that the French king already had too much influence and Henry of Luxembourg was elected. Like his predecessors, Henry meddled in Italian affairs without really understanding them. Henry died of malaria, as did so many from northern Europe who took their armies into Italy.

Louis was allied with Italian enemies of the pope, of whom there were many after the papacy moved to Avignon and the popes became little more than puppets of the French kings. In theory the emperor could do nothing until his election had been confirmed by the pope, but Louis acted without papal authority. He gave shelter to scholars who spoke out against John XXII. In 1328 he invaded Italy and had himself crowned (not by the pope). He also installed an anti-pope in Rome. John XXII excommunicated both Louis and his pope, declaring that there was no emperor. For many years before the outbreak of the Hundred Years War the French had been encroaching on the westernmost territory of the empire and it was not a surprise that, in 1337, Edward III found a willing ally in Louis in his war against the French. Edward III was made a Vicar of the Empire, with powers to act on the emperor’s behalf.

Charles was elected while his predecessor was still alive. This is not surprising, as Louis was considered a heretic and was an excommunicate. Charles was primarily king of Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. For most of his reign he did what he could to benefit his kingdom and neglected the German states.




Filed under Fourteenth Century

Fairs and Markets


Even people who lived in the countryside in the fourteenth century were not always self-sufficient in food. Many tenants preferred to grow crops for money, rather than grow everything that they needed to eat. This meant that they had to buy food from markets in order to survive. Lords of the manor, who could, in theory, grow, rear or hunt everything they needed to eat, wanted to buy luxuries or foodstuffs that could not be produced on their demesne. If they wanted spices for their food or silk for their clothing, they had to go to fairs or markets to buy them, which meant that, like their tenants, they needed money. Both earned money by selling surpluses in markets.

Markets had arisen informally over the centuries. They were centres to which locally grown produce or the goods produced by local craftsmen were brought to be sold. Lords whose manors included the villages (later towns) where these markets were held wanted to benefit from them and they fixed the times and places of the markets so that they were easier to control. Then the lords were able to levy tolls and collect fines. There were many tolls to be paid by those buying and selling goods. If you wanted to take goods through a town, by road or river, you had to pay a toll. If your goods had to be weighed prior to onward transit, you had to pay a toll. If you wanted to set up a stall at the market, you had to pay a toll. If your goods did not match the local quality standards or if you used false measures, you had to pay a fine.  All of this money went to the lord of the manor.

Most people lived within walking distance of a market, but going there, buying things and returning would usually take up a whole day. I’ve discussed this previously here, although the example I used there of people living 12 miles from a market was not the experience of most people. The average distance an English peasant travelled to a market was a little over four miles.

As well as the lords and their tenants there were a variety of people buying and selling in the market. Even in villages there were craftsmen and servants who grew nothing, or very little, to eat. In towns few people had gardens and none could grow enough to live on. All of these had to buy food in the market.

Markets and fairs were eventually licensed by the king and this was supposed to ensure that everything was done fairly, with uniform weights and measures. It also meant that offenders would be punished. This was the theory. The practice was often very different.

There were two types of market: those that handled locally produced goods and those that handled goods from further afield. The former would provide things such as food, cloth, leather, coal, salt and fish. The later provided food, wool, wine, cloth and luxuries. Tradesmen and chapmen serviced the first and merchants the second. Chapmen were itinerants who took their goods from market to market.

Markets were held on two or three days a week and there were not supposed to be any other fairs nearby within two or three days. Needless to say, this injunction was not always observed and towns were frequently complaining about another nearby town holding markets that interfered with their own. Competition was fierce between markets.

Taking produce to market was often the task of women. They were usually the ones responsible for poultry, eggs, fruit, vegetables, honey and wax, so they were the ones who carried them to market in baskets to sell them, as shown in the picture at the top of the post.

Fairs, on the other hand, could last for days or weeks. They were usually held once or twice a year, usually in the summer. Fairs were common around Michaelmas (29th September) when labourers had been paid after the harvest. It was also the beginning of the agricultural year when people were thinking about, and buying, what was needed for the year ahead. The one in Winchester, for example, took place in September. Fairs were much bigger than markets and most of the trading was between merchants. People travelled much further to attend them, both buyers and sellers. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries merchants travelled for weeks from many different countries to attend the great fairs in Champagne, but even those fairs were on the wane by the beginning of the fourteenth century.






Filed under Fourteenth Century

The Lord of the Manor


In the fourteenth century, land ownership was split almost equally between lay lords (including the king) and ecclesiastical lords. In theory, all land in England belonged to the king, but, in practice, much of it had been given to the church. This was partly as a means of ensuring that prayers were said for the souls of the donor and his family after their deaths and partly because it was sometimes politically necessary to do so. Sometimes, of course, it was simply an act of piety. Lay lords held land from the king in return for paying him homage and promising to support him, with arms if required. The land that these tenants-in-chief held was sometimes given to their followers in turn, and these followers pledged their support to the tenant-in-chief. At the bottom of the ladder, the land was tended by tenants who paid rent for it by means of grain, livestock, their own labour on the lord’s demesne or money.

Some manors were vast, especially those belonging to bishoprics and earls. The ecclesiastical manors were the slowest to change and, throughout the fourteenth century, there were more serfs living and working on these manors than there were freemen. This was reversed on the manors belonging to lay lords, and the proportion of free to serf increased as the size of the manor decreased.

The demesne was the lord’s own land. Its produce was used to feed his household and any excess could be sold at market. If he had serfs who owed him labour services, they would work on the demesne for a specified number of days each week, as well as at plough time and harvest. Where there were no serfs owing labour services, the lord had to hire men (usually his tenants) to work on the demesne for him.

The produce of the demesne provided only part of lord’s income. He also made money when the land his tenants rented from him changed hands. If there was a marriage, or a death, or if a tenant took over from another tenant, a fee had to be paid to the lord of the manor. Because the lord technically owned the serfs, they also had to pay him a fee to be away from the manor for longer than one day. He also benefited from fines. If a villein left the manor for more than a day without the lord’s permission and was found out, he had to pay a fine.

I have so far been referring to the lord as a man, but often they were women. Just as land was given to monasteries, so it was also given to convents, which meant that many abbesses were lords of manors. Women also inherited manors. Joan of Kent inherited many manors all over England on her brother’s death.

Being a lord of a manor meant that the lord had to put in place the machinery to run the manor. If he was away from the manor frequently, and some lords had so many manors spread over a wide geographical area that they couldn’t hope to visit them all, they had to have officials in place to run the manor for them. These included a steward, a bailiff and a reeve, plus others depending on the size and type of manor.

Because they were the only ones with capital, lords of the manor usually provided the local infrastructure. As with giving land to the church, this was sometimes done because it benefited the lord himself and sometimes it was the result of a charitable impulse. Lords of the manor frequently built bridges, especially if these were on roads leading to a market to which the lord had the rights. Once built, the lord would charge people wishing to cross the bridge a toll, ostensibly for the bridge’s upkeep, but sometimes just as a means of making money. Where it was not practical to build a bridge, the lord might maintain a ferry to enable people to cross a river. They often built mills on their land. Their serfs had to use them and the lord of the manor benefited from a tax on their fee for using the mill, or a fine if it was discovered that they were not using it, either because they were taking their grain elsewhere or because they were grinding it at home. Lords of the manor endowed churches, both for their own use and for the use of their tenants. By far the most popular right with the lord’s tenants was his right to establish fairs and markets, as this provided them with somewhere to sell their surplus and to purchase things they could not make.

Among the lord’s less popular privileges was his right to fold all his tenant’s sheep on his demesne so that he could have the benefit of their manure. Conversely, if a tenant’s animal strayed onto the demesne, the tenant would have to pay a fine to have it released to him.

Wealthy lords with extensive estates might have forests, parks or chases where animals were protected so that the lords could hunt them. The kind of hunting they undertook was both prestigious and necessary. Hunting was a skill highly esteemed by nobles. It was necessary, in that it put meat on the table of the lord and his household.





Filed under Fourteenth Century

Praying for the souls of the royal family


This week I was in Coventry and was fortunate enough to be able to go into the church of St John the Baptist in the city centre. It is referred to as Coventry’s medieval gem, and this is no exaggeration. The church was founded in the fourteenth century, under circumstances that we’ll go into shortly, but underwent huge alterations in the fifteenth, sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Much of the centre of Coventry was destroyed during the war, so it’s wonderful that St John’s has survived.

I went to the church to look at some needlework panels showing over a thousand years of Coventry’s history including St Osburga, Lady Godiva, the Civil War, the industrialisation of Coventry and the Second World War, but the real interest for me was the founding of the church, which is documented at various places inside the building.

In 1344 Queen Isabella, widow of Edward II and mother of Edward III, gave some land to the guild of St John the Baptist in Coventry. The land was part of her manor, Cheylesmore. The chapel was to be a chantry, where Masses would be said for members of the royal family, including her husband, the late king. Since the official date for the death of Edward II was September 1327, the timing of this endowment has been taken by many to confirm the theory that he didn’t actually die until the early 1340s, having escaped, or been allowed to escape, from Berkeley Castle and gone to the Continent.


The impy on a pillar inside the church


The grant of the land includes the stipulation that, in addition to saying Masses for the members of the guild (living and dead), two priests had to say Masses daily for Edward III, his wife Philippa, and Edward, the Prince of Wales (the Black Prince) during their lifetimes and for their souls after their deaths.  It has been suggested that she founded the guild of St John herself specifically to say Masses for the royal family. The chapel was consecrated on 2nd May 1350.


The position of the chapel – probably


The photograph above shows the aisle that is believed to mark the original foundation, with the needlework panels I’d gone to see down one side. On Isabella’s death in 1358 her grandson, the Black Prince inherited the Cheylesmore manor and donated more land to the guild.

The guild flourished and by 1393 there were nine priests.

The chantry was dissolved in 1548 and became a parish church in 1734.


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Uncategorized