The Medieval Floor

 

Encaustic tiles

Fourteenth century tiles

You might not have given much thought to medieval floors, but they were quite varied and offer good opportunities to a novelist in scene-setting or showing a character’s state of mind. In Beloved Besieged Elaine covers the floor of her father’s hall with rushes strewn with sweet-smelling herbs and flowers for her betrothal celebration. In my current work in progress, the heroine drops to the floor of the main room of the inn in which she’s staying, even though she suspects it will result in an unpleasant stain on her clothes.

Not all medieval floors were equal. In most houses, the floors of the rooms on the ground floor were simply beaten earth. It always sounded unpleasant, especially when I saw the state of the floors in castles that I visited. Thanks to them I had visions of lumpy, uneven floors being swept away when they were brushed or of bits of a floor sticking to shoes if someone entered the house from the rain or of it being scratched up by dogs or cats. Then I saw one in the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton. That floor is very solid and secure and would last for a long time with only a little maintenance.

 

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Earthen floor in the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

It took a fair amount of effort to make such a floor and sometimes the neighbours were called on for help. As many people as the householder could get would walk on the floor for an afternoon (or longer) until it was flat and smooth. They literally walked round in circles until it was done. They would have a chat or a sing as they walked. This seems to me to be a very satisfactory way of providing a floor surface and is probably quicker and more enjoyable than laying a laminate floor.

The earthen floor would be covered with rushes. Rushes provided good insulation and could help to keep the floor clean. I know that I often point to The Secrets of the Castle for illustrations of many things, but the archaeologists demonstrate the practicalities of medieval life so well. When she moved into a labourer’s hovel near the building site, Ruth Goodman pondered how the rushes might have been laid, since loose rushes would not stay where they were put for long. She concluded that they would probably have been tied together in bunches and then laid on the floor. Other historians and archaeologists have considered whether the rushes might have been woven into mats before being placed on the floor, but everyone seems to be agreed that loose rushes were not strewn on the floor. Rushes weren’t just used in houses. Almost every domestic beaten earth floor would have been covered in them.

In a public building, an inn, for example, the rushes would have contained dreadful things trodden in from outside by people and dogs, but in a hovel, where the rushes would have doubled up as the bedding for the occupants, they would have been kept much cleaner. In the spring and summer herbs and flowers could be added to make the rushes (and the room) smell sweeter and to disguise less welcome odours.

Encaustic Tiles from Hyde Abbey

Fourteenth Century Tiles

Tiles provided a far more upmarket floor surface. Like everything else in medieval times, their production was very labour intensive. They required someone to dig the clay, which had to be cleaned and homogenised until it could be worked. Then it would be pressed into square, wooden moulds. After the tiles had been pushed out of the moulds, they would be dried and stacked in a kiln to be fired. A medieval kiln was more like an earthwork than an oven and firing could take twenty-four hours or more. Disaster was always close at hand. Bad weather could mean that the firing was delayed, or the tiles could be too wet and would explode when the water became hot enough to turn it to gas.

Tiles could be plain or patterned with different coloured clay. Decorated tiles were for the very rich or churches. The photographs in this post are of encaustic tiles recovered from the site of Hyde Abbey in Winchester. The patterns are made by using different colours of clay. Like the ones in the photographs, they were usually of two colours, but they could contain up to six different colours. Because the pattern is not just on the surface, it remains as the tile is worn down.

 

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The Medieval Mason

 

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Interior Wall, Romsey Abbey

 

Stone buildings and stonemasons went together in the Middle Ages. It took skill and ingenuity to produce beautiful buildings, many of which have stood for centuries. It also took planning and the use of sophisticated lifting equipment.

Stone was an expensive material to use, even if it was quarried locally, and it needed skilled men to cut and shape it.

Different groups of men worked with the stone needed for a castle, a cathedral or a church. The stone had to be quarried first. Quarrymen were not masons. Their job was simply to get the stone for the masons to work on out of the ground. Usually, local stone was used, but occasionally stone could travel long distances, even from other countries. For Winchester Castle, for example, stone was brought from Selborne (18 miles away), the Isle of Wight (30 miles, but half of them on water), Haslebury (70 miles) and Caen (across the Channel in France). Transport costs, as well as the quality of the stone, meant that stone brought from far away was very expensive.

There were different classes of masons and the first two were the rough masons and the freemasons. The rough masons were unskilled and made the rubble walls, which were often used where neither strength nor appearance was considered important. Rubble was a low grade of stone, which could not be cut or shaped. Sometimes rubble walls were dressed so that an inner core of rubble was covered with smoothly-cut and close-fitting stones. This photograph shows a rubble interior.

 

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Arrow Slit, Arundel Tower, Southampton

 

Freemasons could cut freestone to make squared blocks (ashlars) or complex shapes. The interior and exterior walls of Romsey Abbey pictured at the top of the post and below are made of cut stone. The freemasons put the stones in place and carved the decorative parts of a building. Freemasons earned more than rough masons, but they were not at the top of the chain.

 

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Exterior Wall, Romsey Abbey

 

The master mason was in overall charge of the building site. He was the designer, engineer and contractor. He was the man employed by the patron to be responsible for all the building work. There would be a contract between the master mason and the patron which set out what the master mason was to build and how much he would be paid for doing so. He designed the building and took on all the men he needed to get the job done. He was paid by the patron and he, in turn, paid all the other men employed on the building site.

Some patrons wanted more of a say in the design than others and some master masons seem to have reused design elements from one building to another. They might even have been employed specifically to incorporate something that they had done elsewhere and that the patron liked.

Designs for decorative work were illustrated on a tracing floor. This was a plaster-covered surface on the ground onto which the master mason could trace the full-size design. From this he made a wooden template for the freemason to use as a pattern.

The masons worked in a lodge – a wooden structure on the building site that provided some shelter while they worked on the stone. It was also a place for them to eat and rest.

The cut stones were heavy. At ground level they could be moved on wooden rollers, but getting them to the tops of ever-growing walls required more ingenuity. A pulley was used to lift stones. Usually, this was done with the help of one or more men inside a treadmill. A hand winch could be used for small blocks of stone.

Most buildings were designed using squares and circles. The master mason used simple geometry to work out the proportions with a compass and a square. He did not necessarily need to understand the mathematics behind his design.

The working season was usually from the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or Candlemas (2nd February), to All Saints Day (1st November). At the end of the season the work was covered, often with straw, to protect it from the elements until the next season. Work stopped before temperatures fell below freezing, as the mortar was useless once it had frozen.

Medieval building techniques can be seen at the archaeological project at Guédelon, where a castle is being built using techniques from the thirteenth century. The DVD Secrets of the Castle, which was filmed there, shows these techniques.

 

 

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The Three Destinations of the Medieval Pilgrim

This week I have have had the pleasure of writing a post for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. It’s a companion piece to last week’s post here about medieval pilgrims and looks at the places to which medieval pilgrim travelled, in particular, Compostela.

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In the Middle Ages the top three destinations for pilgrims were Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela, in that order of importance. For the English, a pilgrimage abroad was never an easy thing to undertake and wars, thieves and bandits made it even more difficult.

Jerusalem and Rome were top of the list for obvious reasons, but why was Compostela the third? Compostela is in Galicia, in northern Spain, and is a little less than fifty miles from Cape Finisterre, which the Romans thought was the edge of the world.

The cathedral at Compostela is said to contain the remains of St James the Great, believed to be the first apostle to be martyred. One of the legends about St James is that he preached in Spain, before returning to Judea where he was martyred by being beheaded on the orders of Herod Agrippa in 44 AD. His remains were then transported from Judea to Spain in a rudderless, stone boat guided by angels. Santiago is the Galician form of St James.

Click here to read the rest.

 

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The Abbey at Romsey

 

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Romsey Abbey

 

Towards the end of last year I wrote about the wall paintings at Romsey Abbey without really mentioning any of the other things contained in the abbey or the history of the abbey. I visited Romsey in October as part of my research for Beloved Besieged, since part of the story takes place there.

Romsey is a small town on the River Test, twelve miles south-west of Winchester. The abbey stands in the centre of the town and was a convent for over 500 years.

The abbey has a very long history, being founded at the end of the tenth century by Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great. The first building was probably made of wood, which was the norm for Saxon churches. The abbey was refounded in the middle of the tenth century and the nuns adopted the Rule of St Benedict.

Ethelflaeda became abbess in 996. She was canonised and is one of the patron saints of the abbey. This thirteenth century tomb is in her eponymous chapel, as is the fifteenth century painting of a priest.

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Thirteenth century tomb in St Ethelflaeda’s Chapel, Romsey Abbey

 

 

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Painting in St Ethelflaeda’s Chapel, Romsey Abbey

 

The abbey has two Saxon roods. A rood is a crucifix, usually life-sized.  One rood is inside, in a chapel, and the other is on an exterior wall.

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Interior Rood, Romsey Abbey

 

 

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Exterior Rood, Romsey Abbey

 

Romsey Abbey has housed some famous women including Matilda, later wife of Henry I and mother of Empress Matilda. She was educated in the abbey at the end of the eleventh century. Mary de Blois, daughter of King Stephen, against whom Empress Matilda fought a civil war, was abbess in the middle of the twelfth century. Mary was kidnapped from the abbey and forced to marry when she became Countess of Boulogne in her own right. This caused a scandal and the marriage was eventually annulled, although not until she had borne her kidnapper two children. After the annulment, Mary entered another convent, where she remained for the rest of her life.

The Vikings burned the abbey in the 990s. Fortunately, the nuns had received a warning and were able to escape. The Normans started to replace the Saxon church in the 1120s. Throughout its early history the abbey was rebuilt and extended several times.

The nuns lived in buildings south of the church, but nothing is left of them today. There were normally about one hundred nuns in the abbey, but it must have varied considerably over the years. In 1327 the bishop of Winchester wrote to the abbess to say that no more women could be admitted without his permission, as there were too many of them. It’s not known how many women were in the abbey at the time, but it must have been significantly more than one hundred.

Like many monasteries and convents, the abbey was badly hit by the Black Death in 1348/9. By the time the plague had run its course, only nineteen nuns remained alive. Their numbers never really recovered, providing sufficient cause to dissolve the abbey in 1539.

The nuns of Romsey always had a reputation for lax behaviour.They travelled as much as they could, thus flouting the Rule, which said that a nun should not leave the convent once she had been admitted to it.  The nuns also dressed extravagantly. Like monks, they were supposed to wear simple clothes. Two nuns were even excommunicated in the fourteenth century, although it’s not known what they had done to merit this.

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Fifteenth century reredos, St Lawrence’s Chapel, Romsey Abbey

 

This last photograph doesn’t have anything to do with the abbey. These are just some swans who were also enjoying the late autumn sun on the River Test a short walk from the abbey.

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The Medieval Pilgrim

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At the beginning of my latest novel, Beloved Besieged, Joscelin is a pilgrim who is being punished for a terrible sin by being made to walk to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Not all the pilgrims who travelled to shrines were being punished, however.

Pilgrims came from all levels of society and left home for a variety of reasons. Some were pious and wanted to visit a shrine to give thanks for something or to request a miracle. Some went as a penance, whether self-imposed or as a punishment from their confessors. The more serious the sin, the further away the object of the pilgrimage. Some simply wanted to see the world.  Pilgrims could also be of either sex. For most women it was the only way they would manage to see any of the world beyond their own home.

Pilgrimage was very popular in the fourteenth century, having reached its peak around 1300. There were, however, several periods during which English pilgrims had to be satisfied with destinations within England, such as Walsingham, Winchester or Canterbury due to war. There were also local cults which flourished for a short time and then disappeared.

Theological thought about the relics that pilgrims travelled to see or touch was mixed.  Many theologians considered that there was no value in the relic of a saint. Tomas Aquinas, however, found a spiritual justification for pilgrimage. He argued that a relic was the physical reminder of a saint. If someone loves someone else, he said, they love what that person leaves behind them when they die, so it was acceptable to love the saint’s relic. The bodily relic of a saint was connected to his or her soul and the Holy Spirit could work through the body of a saint as well as through his or her soul. Since God worked miracles through the saints’ bodies, he showed that he wanted them to be venerated. This argument goes somewhat awry when you realise that most relics were not parts of the bodies of saints, but an article associated with them. Sometimes this was just an image of them, which they had never seen or touched.

Following the sack of Constantinople in 1204 many relics found their way into the west and different churches claimed to have the same relic. There were, for example, at least three heads of John the Baptist. For most people this was of no importance at all. Some, however, questioned how it was possible that there were so many saints who had left four or five arms, or twenty fingers, behind them to be discovered in circumstances which became increasingly questionable.

The three main pilgrimage sites were Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela. Jerusalem was the most important and the most difficult to get to, for which read dangerous, time-consuming and expensive. If you were English, getting there meant a long overland journey to places such as Marseilles or Venice followed by a lengthy sea journey across the Mediterranean, at risk from pirates and storms. There was a very brief period when it was possible to travel overland to Jerusalem from Europe, but very few could afford to go to Jerusalem.

Going to Rome meant braving the wars in northern Italy that were, in part, responsible for keeping the fourteenth century popes in Avignon.

Compostela was, for most of the time, a much safer option. An English pilgrim could sail to Gascony and cross the Pyrenees and follow a route across northern Spain. If there was peace with France he, or she, might even be able to sail to Calais and cross France, following one of the many established routes which led to the south-west.

For most people, however, a pilgrimage was very much a local affair. Cults were constantly springing up and dying down again, so there would often be a shrine near to home, perhaps within a day or two’s walk.

Pilgrims usually travelled in groups for safety. Although the pope had declared that anyone attacking pilgrims was excommunicate and pilgrims announced themselves as such by carrying a staff and wearing a cross on their tunics, they were still frequently attacked and robbed. There were two types of pilgrim – those who set out carrying all the money they needed for the pilgrimage and those who begged for alms or worked as they travelled. The first group were obviously a target for bandits, but even the second group would occasionally be carrying a large amount of money and bandits could not tell which was which. Pilgrims needed money for offerings to be left at shrines as well as for food and accommodation.

There was a pilgrim ‘uniform’. As well as wearing his long tunic (a sclavein), which bore a cross, and carrying a staff, a pilgrim also carried a scrip. This was a leather pouch tied to his waist and it contained food, a bowl, a mug and money. The staff and scrip would be blessed by the pilgrim’s priest before he set out. Usually a pilgrim also wore a broad-rimmed hat. On the return journey he would proudly wear a trinket or badge that he had purchased at the shrine to prove that he had reached it. Pilgrims who had gone to Santiago de Compostela came back with cockleshells. This eventually became the symbol of pilgrimage, regardless of the shrine visited.

Pilgrims were supposed to be exempt from laws prohibiting begging and from paying tolls, but this prohibition was not always observed. Even pilgrims who had set out with a lot of money could find themselves running out.

The pilgrimage routes were not always the same as those followed by merchants, so they were not necessarily well-provided with inns or other forms of accommodation. Pilgrims could stay at monasteries and hostels set up along the pilgrim routes by monasteries. The Carmelite friary at Aylesford welcomed pilgrims on their way to Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. The Pilgrims’ Hall, pictured below, is now the dining-room for visitors to the friary.

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The Pilgrim’s Hall, Aylesford

Where the pilgrimage was a penance, the pilgrim sought absolution. Some shrines were ‘worth’ more than others in this regard and he had to choose his destination carefully.

Pilgrims expected to witness miracles at shrines. Past miracles were the reason why the shrines were there in the first place. Pilgrims would leave wax offerings at the shrine indicating the kind of miracle they had experienced or hoped for.

Since pilgrimages were a sign of humility, they were supposed to be carried out on foot. Some pilgrims even went so far as to go barefoot or to crawl, if only for part of the way. These were the most highly regarded pilgrims.

A pilgrimage was not undertaken lightly. Even a pilgrimage within England could take someone away from their home for several weeks. Going to Rome or Compostela could take several months.  Preparations had to be made in advance.  A decision had to be made about who was going to manage any property while the owner was away. It was not unknown for a pilgrim to return and find that his ownership of his estate had been contested in his absence and he had lost the right to it. Some chose to leave their property in the hands of the church, but that could be just as dangerous.

Where the pilgrimage was a punishment, some could pay to avoid embarking on it or pay someone to go on their behalf. This was a good option for the elderly or sick. Many people died on pilgrimage. If they had come to a particular shrine for healing, they might wait there until they were healed or died. Often they expected to die at the shrine which was the goal of their pilgrimage. Even if they did not expect to die they made a will before they left home.

If they did manage to return home, they would always have plenty of stories to entertain their family and friends.

 

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The Sack of Limoges

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To celebrate the publication of Beloved Besieged this weekend, I’m looking at the Sack of Limoges, which is the central event of the novel. It took place on 19th September 1370 and is the event which tarnished the Black Prince’s reputation for chivalry. According to (more or less) contemporary chroniclers, he ordered the massacre of the town’s inhabitants, some 3,000 people.

In many ways his actions at Limoges were a result of what had happened in Castile in 1367. The Prince had gone into Spain to assist Don Pedro, England’s ally. Due to the part he played in the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, in which the English had been the victors, he was known as the greatest soldier of his age. Since he was the Prince of Aquitaine and was living in the principality at the time, he was the obvious choice to send south to Castile. Although he won the Battle of Nájera, the expenses of the campaign were more than the Prince could afford and, whilst waiting in Castile for the repayment of his expenses, he became ill. Don Pedro had promised more than he could deliver, however, and the Prince finally realised that he wasn’t going to get any money from him and went back over the Pyrenees.

After he returned to Aquitaine his enemies soon learned of his weakened state and began to exploit it. The Prince no longer had the energy to defend the borders of his principality against the French. To make matters worse, those who served beneath him lacked both his charismatic leadership and his experience. As a result of his losses in Spain, the Prince had to raise more taxes, which made him unpopular in Aquitaine.

Officially England and France had been at peace since October 1360, but the French began to make incursions into Aquitaine with increasing impunity after 1367. The Prince’s unpopularity and his inability to protect them against the French meant that many towns surrendered without a fight, but the surrender of the town of Limoges after a siege of a mere three days was the last straw for the Prince. Despite his failing health, he took an army across Aquitaine to Limoges, to which he laid siege.

Like most towns in that part of France, Limoges was divided into two parts, each surrounded by walls. One part held the castle and the garrison and the other (the Cité) contained the cathedral. It was the Cité which surrendered.

The state of the Cité’s walls was such that they only held against the Prince’s army for five days. The Prince’s miners built a tunnel under a tower and set a fire beneath it, bringing the tower and some of the wall down. The army then fought its way into the town.

A few reasons have been suggested for what happened next. The most obvious was that showing no mercy would send a message to other towns in Aquitaine contemplating going over to the French. Another was that the Prince knew that his failing health would not allow him to hold on to Aquitaine much longer and he vented his anger on the town. A third was that the bishop who was responsible for the surrender was a friend, godfather to one of his sons, and the Prince felt the betrayal personally. Whatever his reasons, there were rules about sieges, and the surrender of Limoges without putting up a fight meant that the Prince could exact any punishment on the town that he wished.

The Prince was so ill that he had to be carried to Limoges on a litter and did not take part in the fighting. His punishment for the town was to order its complete destruction and the death of its inhabitants.  This was permitted within the rules of siege warfare.

In his Chronicles Froissart described the slaughter of the people of the town, but he either was not aware of the rules of sieges or he chose to ignore them. He wrote about people begging on their knees for their lives and the Prince ignoring them in his anger. According to Froissart, three thousand men, women and children were massacred. Modern historians, however, believe that the number of people killed was much smaller and was probably limited to the members of the garrison left behind by the French together with a few civilians, possibly no more than 300 people. The town, however, was burnt and it was decades before it was rebuilt.

Almost as soon as he had come the Prince was gone and the army returned to the court at Angoulême. When he arrived back in Angoulême the Prince learned that his oldest son, six-year-old Edward, had died in his absence. He must have known then that there was no more that he could do in Aquitaine, for he appointed his brother, John of Gaunt, as his lieutenant and returned to England after Christmas 1370, formally renouncing his position as Prince of Aquitaine in 1372.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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King at last, or how Edward III overthrew Roger Mortimer

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King, but not ruling

Edward III’s reign officially began on 25th January 1327 following the abdication of his father, Edward II. Edward II had been forced to abdicate by his wife, Queen Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, following their invasion of England in September of the previous year.

Edward III was only thirteen when he became king and Isabella and Mortimer were the de facto rulers of England. Mortimer surrounded the king with spies so that Edward’s actions were constrained. Edward even had to agree a secret code with the pope so that the latter would know which letters purporting to come from the king really were from him.

Worrying Times

By October 1330 a few things had happened which would have made the young king worry about his personal safety. Edward II had been notoriously healthy, yet he died in September 1427 after only eight months of imprisonment and his body, contrary to custom, was not displayed before it was buried. This led many to believe that he had been murdered on Mortimer’s orders.

In March 1330 Edward III had been forced to acquiesce to the execution of his uncle, the Earl of Kent, an event so terrible and unexpected that it proved difficult to find someone willing to carry out the execution.

On 15th June 1330 Edward of Woodstock, Edward III’s first son, was born. This did not necessarily increase Edward’s immediate danger. It was not unusual for children, even the children of kings, to die very young. Of Edward’s thirteen children, four lived no more than a few of days and only six reached their twenties. If  Mortimer wanted a boy he could manipulate until he was of an age to rule in his own right, they would have to make sure they chose the right one before they disposed of Edward.

What did present an immediate danger to Edward was the rumour that his mother was pregnant. During the previous four years Mortimer had been behaving as if he were the king, even taking precedence over the king at public events. If he were to have a son by Isabella, his ambition was such that he might depose (and kill) Edward in his son’s favour. He had many supporters, so such a possibly would not have been unthinkable to a man who had already deposed a king.

The big question mark in all of this is how far Isabella would have gone along with her lover. She was close to her son and it’s difficult to imagine her agreeing either to his deposition or his murder, even if she was carrying Mortimer’s child. This in turn raises the question of how much influence she had over Mortimer by this stage.

The king takes action

Regardless of whether he thought his mother could prevent his being killed or not, Edward was sufficiently concerned to lead a few trusted men against Mortimer on the evening of 19th October 1330. Mortimer had been alerted by his spies that something was being planned, but they didn’t know the details. Mortimer did everything he could to ensure his own safety. Many of the king’s closest companions had been questioned. Edward’s supporters were not permitted to lodge in Nottingham Castle, where the king, Mortimer and Queen Isabella were staying. The castle guards were told to obey Mortimer’s orders, not those of the king, and Queen Isabella held the keys to the castle. All of these things were, of course, an insult to the king.

The king’s friends, led by William Montague, rode out of Nottingham Castle very conspicuously and re-entered the castle secretly through a small gate which had been left open for them. They joined the king, and Mortimer was arrested. Edward wanted to kill him there and then, but cooler heads prevailed and Mortimer was taken away to London where he was tried. He was hanged just over a month after his arrest.

 

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What did peasants eat?

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about table manners in the fourteenth century. Participants at a feast were expected to behave in a certain way, but such good manners were not expected lower down the social scale. Equally, a peasant was not going to be eating the same food as his, or her, lord, nor were they going to be feasting, with the occasional exception of Christmas. What these people ate was of little interest to the chroniclers or those who recorded recipes, so the information available is sparse.

Bread was the basic foodstuff, eaten by everyone. What it was made of varied according to the wealth and location of the person eating it. The flour used by peasants was coarser and grittier than what would have been used at the manor house. The lord ate paynedemain, or demesne bread, made from flour which had been sieved many times. Peasants were more likely to eat maslin, which was made from mixed wheat and rye, or horse bread, made from peas, beans and any grain that was available. As well as being a food in its own right, bread was also used to thicken sauces and stews.

Everyone ate pottage. This was a broth containing meat and/or vegetables with herbs, cereals and pulses. What went into the pottage depended, again,  on who was eating it, or when it was being eaten. During Lent or on fast days it would not contain meat. Its constitution would either be thick or very thick. If the latter, it could be sliced. Pottages tended to feature vegetables more heavily than meat. Common vegetables were cabbages, leeks, lettuces, onions, garlic, turnips, carrots and peas.  All could be included in a pottage. Unlike today vegetables were available seasonally and not all year round. A pottage made in spring would not be the same as one made in autumn. Herbs would also be added for flavouring.

Fish was another important part of the diet. This usually meant salted or pickled herrings for the poor. Only the wealthy or those living on the coast had access to fresh fish. People who lived inland might obtain fresh fish by paying a fee to the lord in order to fish in his river, or by poaching.

Most peasants kept pigs for meat. These foraged all year and did not need fodder in the winter months. A pig could be killed and its meat pickled or cured so that the peasant had meat during the winter. Cattle, sheep and goats required fodder, so were unlikely to be kept for meat, although they would be kept for milk in order to make butter and cheese. Chickens were also too valuable for peasants to eat, since they produced eggs. Peasants could, however, catch wild birds for consumption.

Possibly the biggest difference between a peasant’s food and that of his lord was the lack of spices. Herbs can only do so much to add flavour to food, but spices can do more. Most spices had to be imported, so were beyond the purse of all but the wealthiest peasant.

As I wrote last week, ale was an important part of the diet and was drunk by all levels of society.

 

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The Alewife

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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.

 

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The Medieval Solar

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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.

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