Tag Archives: Geoffrey Chaucer

Medieval Heraldry

I mentioned a while ago that I’m reading The Canterbury Tales and there are many things in them that are worth writing about here. In the first tale, that of the knight, two young men are identified on a battlefield because they’re wearing devices on their clothing. Chaucer, who had fought (and been taken prisoner) in the Hundred Years War, would have known this detail. It’s probably not too fanciful to imagine that his own value as a prisoner was recognised due to the livery he was wearing when he was captured. He went to France in the retinue of Lionel of Antwerp, a son of Edward III, and it was the king himself who paid Chaucer’s ransom.

As armour developed and covered a knight’s body, including his face, identifying him in battle became more difficult. Devices were created so that those around the knight would know who he was, which was useful both for his own men and o for the knight who would be identified to the other side as someone worth capturing for ransom rather than killing. Devices were shown on shields, banners and surcoats (open-sided tunics worn over armour, as shown in the picture above). They were also appliquéd onto banners, for those who had the right to bear them.

Originally arms were very simple e.g. the three lions of England, the fleur-de-lys of France, the three leopards of Anjou. There were also chevrons, bends, crosses and eagles. They were made in bright colours: red, blue, white and yellow. For the king, gold, silver and silk would be used. Subtle differences in colour could lead to confusion, however.

 When they were inherited by more than one son, the arms had to be changed to identify that son, so devices were quartered as sons took the devices of both their parents. Hence Edward III had three lions from his father as well as the fleur-de-lys from his mother, to show his claim to the French crown.

Heraldry was also useful in jousts so the audience would know who the competitors were. By the fourteenth century it was a sport and everyone liked to be able to identify the participants. Their identities were known because of what they were wearing, but also because the heralds would announce their names. The heralds at tournaments had to know how to identify foreign participants as well. It wasn’t just heralds who were supposed to be able to identify coats of arms, though. It was knowledge that every knight needed to have.

Arms were displayed everywhere: on silver, on the walls of halls, on embroidered vestments given to churches, on church windows, on church walls, on tombs and monuments. They appeared on the knight’s surcoat, his horse’s trappings and his shield. They were on tiles, wall paintings, seals, in manuscripts, on caskets, chests and plate. It was a way of showing that someone was a member of the elite.

Heraldic devices were originally personal, but became hereditary by the twelfth century. They changed from being a way to identify someone to being a sign of lineage, family honour and pride: a way of maintaining an identity. Heroic actions done by previous holders of the arms were attached to the arms themselves, increasing the reputation of the man currently holding them. Some people adopted the arms of the local nobility into their own to share a little of their glory. In Cheshire some families included the wheatsheaf that was used by the early of Chester.

In a battle, soldiers were identified by the arms of their lord. They were in small retinues, with each retinue leader answerable to a more important lord. It was vital for order that a coat of arms should not be used by more than one lord. At the beginning of fourteenth century notes and drawings started to be made about the arms being used so that the heralds could keep track of them.

Disputes about duplications of arms arose after the battle of Crécy at the siege of Calais. If the two knights bearing the same arms weren’t in the same army, it didn’t really matter if they had the same arms. Armies tended to be regional, so an army gathered to fight the Scots would come from the north and it wouldn’t matter if someone in Yorkshire had the same arms as someone in Hampshire, because they wouldn’t usually be called to serve together. There could only be confusion when both were fighting in the same army, which happened during Edward III’s war with France.

There was a court in fourteenth century specifically for trying cases of misappropriation of heraldic devices – the Court of Chivalry. It also dealt with questions about ransoms for men taken prisoner in France. In 1386 Geoffrey Chaucer was called before this court to give evidence in the dispute between Sir Richard Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor. They were cousins and Chaucer said that he had seen both using the same coat of arms at Rettel. This was near Rheims where Chaucer had gone as part of Lionel of Antwerp’s retinue in 1360 in Edward III’s campaign to be crowned king of France. It was also where Chaucer was taken prisoner. The case lasted from 1385 to 1390 and was decided in favour of Sir Richard. Of the two he was the most distinguished, having served Edward III with distinction on his French campaigns. He had also been Richard II’s chancellor.

It’s no wonder that, when he came to write his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer remembered how important a coat of arms could be. Sadly, the two knights in his tale didn’t enjoy the happy ending that Chaucer himself had.

Sources:
Tournaments by Richard Barber and Juliet Barker
The Knight and Chivalry by Richard Barber
Edward III and the Triumph of England by Richard Barber
A Social History of England ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall

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 Serjeant-At-Law

This week we’re returning to The Canterbury Tales to look at another of the pilgrims. Unlike the situation with the pardoner and the summoner, I had a vague idea of what the man of law does. It was only when I read the General Prologue that I realised that he isn’t just a lawyer. He’s a serjeant-at-law, more familiar to us these days, or to me at least, in the (fictional) form of Matthew Shardlake, C. J. Sansom’s Tudor barrister and investigator. I have read all the Shardlake novels and never quite understood what he did and why it meant that he came to the attention of important people. I have taken this opportunity to fill that gap in my knowledge.

As with many odd-looking titles, serjeant-at-law a corruption of the Latin – serviens ad legem – law servant. Serjeant-at-law was the highest rank of English barrister and they were a very select group. In Chaucer’s time there were rarely more than twenty of them. The king appointed them after they had completed sixteen years of study and practice, and the justices of the court were chosen from among them.

They were the only barristers who were allowed to work in the Court of Common Pleas, the principal court in England, since they were the only ones who could take pleading cases.

The Court of Common Pleas was possibly established by Henry II in 1178 as a separate entity from the King’s Bench, or it might have been the other way round. No one is entirely sure how it happened, but it’s more or less certain that there were two types of court by the beginning of the thirteenth century. The King’s Bench heard cases that involved the crown and the Court of Common Pleas heard the ones that didn’t. Originally five members of the king’s council heard the cases, but this was later amended by Magna Carta, making the court independent of the king. It was given its own place to meet in Westminster Hall and by 1272 it had a chief justice.

If you’ve read any of the Shardlake novels, you’ll know that his rank is shown by his clothing and the same thing applied in the fourteenth century. Serjeants-at-law were known by their white coifs. This was a tight-fitting cap, as you’ll see in the illustration at the top of the post. They’re possibly more familiar to you as something that nuns wear under their wimples, but they were also worn by men in the Middle Ages.

Chaucer’s serjeant-at-law would, like his peers, have been very highly-regarded in fourteenth-century England. I’m interested to find out what he’ll get up to on the pilgrimage.

Sources:
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer ed. Jill Mann

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.

Available now:

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Things I’ve Learned From The Canterbury Tales Part Two

In the description of the the franklin, one of the pilgrims, I came across a term I’ve skimmed over in the past when I’ve encountered it. I didn’t really have much of an idea of what a knight of the shire was, but the notes of my edition of The Canterbury Tales told me that it was a member of parliament and that Chaucer had been one. So I did a bit of reading.

Two knights were chosen to represent each county at a parliament. They were supposed to be elected, but usually they were chosen by the county’s sheriff. As representatives of people in a certain location, rather than invited directly by the king, they were in the Commons. Parliaments were called by the king, usually when he needed to raise money by means of taxes. They could meet anywhere in the country, depending on where the king was, but Westminster was often its location under Edward III and Richard II.

Chaucer was MP for Kent in the ‘Wonderful Parliament’ from 1 October to 28 November 1386. It met in the chapter house of Westminster Abbey. Chaucer was only an esquire, however, not a knight. Knights weren’t always keen to act as knights of their shires, finding the obligations burdensome. Men like Chaucer, however, who was the son of a merchant and would never be knighted, were often extremely happy to take their place in parliament, since it was a great honour for them. Chaucer was paid 4 shillings a day for attendance and was never an MP again.

The other thing that I learned from the description of the franklin is what an up-and-coming gentleman had for his breakfast. The franklin was fond of a sop in wine for his first meal of the day. A sop was a piece of bread and it was dipped into the wine. This was, apparently not an unusual way for people with the necessary means to break their fasts. The wine would have been fairly weak, as was the ale that people lower down the social scale had with their breakfasts.

Sources:
The Canterbury Tales ed. Jill Mann
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall

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 Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall – A Review

Chaucer life

Pages: 380
Published: 1992

More Chaucer this week. This time it’s the man himself rather than his work. The last time I wrote about his life on this blog (towards the end of 2018), Toutparmoi mentioned The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall, so I bought a copy, and it has proven to be a good purchase. It was published almost thirty years ago, so there is a chance that some of what it contains has been superseded by more recent research.

The book’s subtitle is A Critical Biography and that’s the part that I found least pleasing. Pearsall ties what is known of Chaucer’s life to the supposed dates of his works. I say ‘supposed’, because no one really knows when he wrote which works. Some can be narrowed down to a decade or so, and The Book of the Duchess must have been written after the death of Blanche of Lancaster, the duchess it celebrates. There are some clues, but few of them clear cut.

Since I’ve only read one of Chaucer’s poems, these sections of the book meant nothing to me. The discussions about various interpretations of the actions of different characters, particularly in The Canterbury Tales, must be engaging if you’re familiar with them, but I’m not.

There are surprisingly few records of Chaucer’s life. Most of them are about annuities given to him, or expenses for clothing for special occasions while he was in service to various royal households. Some relate to court cases against him for debt and one for rape. This last raises all kinds of questions about Chaucer, but Pearsall offers no definitive answer, which is quite correct of him, given the impossibility of obtaining any of the facts, let alone all of them after more than six centuries.

Pearsall is very good at putting what is known (and sometimes what isn’t known) about Chaucer into context. There’s no information about Chaucer’s education, so Pearsall doesn’t jump to conclusions about his schooling, but describes the kind of education a boy of Chaucer’s class would have had. He does something similar at other points in the book.

The picture Pearsall paints of Chaucer is, of necessity, superficial. It’s also surprisingly unattractive. It’s hard to reconcile the (possible) rapist and constant debtor with the trusted servant of royalty and creator of some of the best poetry written in the Middle Ages.

I think Pearsall’s ideal reader is someone who has read all of Chaucer’s works, is interested in the fourteenth century in general and in Chaucer’s life in particular, in that order. Since I only fall into the last two categories, I don’t feel that I’ve reaped the full benefit of reading this book. Despite that, I’ve learned a lot from it.

 

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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What Did Pardoners and Summoners Do?

Canterbury Tales

Can you tell that I’ve finally started reading The Canterbury Tales? I’m reading it in Middle English, because I like doing things that are difficult. To be honest, it’s not that hard to get an idea of what’s going on, but you do need the vocabulary to understand the detail. Fortunately, the Penguin edition that I’m using has both a very good glossary and extensive notes. It’s a huge book, though, so it will take me a while to get through it.

I’ve only read a few pages so far, but I already have some questions that aren’t answered for me in the notes. To be fair, they might be answered later, but I’m beginning to suspect they might not be. This post will be the first in an occasional series about things relating to The Canterbury Tales. They might be things that I learn from reading the poem or questions arising from it about life in fourteenth-century England. Today’s post is the latter.

Although I haven’t come across them in the book yet, I know that two of the pilgrims going to Canterbury are a pardoner and a summoner.  What I don’t know is what they do, except the obvious that one pardons and the other summons. Who do they pardon and summon, though, and on whose behalf?

Here are the answers.

The pardoner was a secular clerk or friar, whose role was originally that of messenger, which we’ll come to later. By the fourteenth century he was carrying relics around with him, which he displayed for a fee. Anyone who knew anything about relics in the Middle Ages would have realised how unlikely it was that someone in such a lowly position would be travelling around with one, let alone more than one, relic. Even tiny fragments were kept in reliquaries or inside shrines and further secured within churches. Chaucer’s pardoner has a pillow-case he says is the veil of the Virgin Mary and he also has a bit of St. Peter’s fishing boat. I suspect that Chaucer’s contemporaries were very aware of what was going on with regard to false relics.

The pardoner also sold indulgences, which many people wrongly believed were pardons for sin. Their official title was questor (asker), since they asked people about their sins. The role was abolished by the pope in 1562, a little late, as the selling of indulgences was one of the abuses that figured largely in Luther’s ninety-five theses in 1517, which led to Reformation.

Indulgences were instituted with good intentions in the tenth century.  People confessed their sins to a priest and were absolved. They were then given a penance. Sometimes people were given penances that were beyond them physically and they could pay something in place of carrying out the penance. That was an indulgence. At first indulgences were specific to the person receiving them.

More general indulgences were introduced in the eleventh century. These could apply to anyone who met the conditions attached to them. The best known general (or plenary) indulgence is probably the one relating to the First Crusade in 1096 when Pope Urban II said that any man who set out to take Jerusalem for Christianity would have all his penance for the rest of his life cancelled.

Urban II also made use of partial indulgences for pilgrims visiting to specific churches and those who helped to restore a monastery in Normandy. During the twelfth century bishops started issuing their own indulgences to pilgrims visiting certain shrines in their dioceses. From that point it got out of hand.

An indulgence could reduce or cancel entirely the sinner’s penance. It did not forgive the sin or release the sinner from his guilt, although many people believed that it did. The finer points of theology might have been discussed in the great church councils attended by cardinals and bishops, but few parish priests understood them. Their parishioners had even less chance of knowing what the real purpose of an indulgence was.

Let us return to our seller of indulgences. The things that pardoners generally did were prohibited. They were not supposed to sell indulgences, preach in churches or forgive sins and they weren’t supposed to collect money for displaying relics. Officially all they could do was deliver the paperwork of an indulgence from the pope or a bishop to a repentant sinner.

As early as 1215, at the fourth Lateran Council, it was agreed that questors should be licensed. A licence could come from the pope or a bishop. In theory that meant that pardoners would be limited in where they could go and that they would have to show their licence as they travelled. In practice few people could read and most people wouldn’t have known to ask to see the licence anyway.

That obviously didn’t work and the behaviour of pardoners got worse. An edict was sent out in 1267 to say that pardoners couldn’t demand accommodation with clergy in the towns and villages they passed through, nor could they force a local priest to gather the parishioners to hear them preach, which was obviously what had been happening.

Even that wasn’t enough, though. By 1312 pardoners had to show their credentials to bishops in order to enter their dioceses. The Canterbury Tales was written towards the end of the century and things were clearly no better. To men like Chaucer, pardoners were clearly disreputable.

The other pilgrim whose job was a mystery to me is the pardoner’s friend the summoner. He was an official of the ecclesiastical courts and it was his responsibility to bring people to who were believed to have broken canon law to the archdeacon’s court. Lay people were summoned to the ecclesiastical courts for not paying their tithes or death duties, or after being accused of a sexual offence, or if they were involved in a marital dispute or were accused of perjury. By the end of the fourteenth century summoners were considered to be little more than spies and blackmailers.

They were introduced in England in the thirteenth century. It was widely believed that they threated people with non-existent crimes in order to extort money. They could also be bribed by those who were guilty to let them go. In this they were no different from many in the secular courts, although I think they were probably meant to be different.

Sources:
Who Murdered Chaucer? – Terry Jones
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases – Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Pilgrimage – Jonathan Sumption

 

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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Geoffrey Chaucer

Canterbury Tales

It’s a rare thing for me to do a biographical post, but I had a discussion with Toutparmoi, whose excellent blog is The Earl of Southampton’s Cat, about Shakespeare scholars and, by extension, Chaucer scholars, embellishing the life of their subject of study. I said that Chaucer’s life was pretty exciting without the need for embellishment. It was so exciting that I think it’s worth sharing.

Chaucer’s father, John, was a wine merchant based in London, and Geoffrey was born there in about 1340, which means, amongst other things, that he lived through the Black Death. From 1347 to 1349 John Chaucer was the king’s deputy butler in Southampton, supervising wine shipments from Bordeaux to the king’s cellars. I like to think that Chaucer spent some time with his father in Southampton and knew the wine merchant’s house I use as the representation of this blog.

In 1357 Chaucer is recorded as being a page in the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster. Elizabeth was the wife of Lionel, the third son of Edward III. Born in 1338, Lionel wasn’t much older than his wife’s servant. Two years later, in 1359, Chaucer was serving in Lionel’s retinue in France. It had been Edward III’s plan to have himself crowned King of France at Rheims cathedral, but his armies were weakened by bad weather and poor supply line, and they were unable to continue the siege. Chaucer went on a foraging raid and was captured by the French. Fortunately, he was of some value and was ransomed for £16.

He married Philippa de Roet in 1365 or 1366. She was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III, but her main claim to fame is that her younger sister was Katherine Swynford, mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt, Edward’s fourth son.

Chaucer was in Navarre in 1366. He might have been on a pilgrimage to Santiago, or on a diplomatic mission. He was recorded as being a king’s esquire in 1367, so he could have been doing something for him. In the same year his son, Thomas, was born.

In April 1368, Lionel, now a widower, travelled to Italy to marry Violante Visconti, daughter of the Lord of Milan. Chaucer was one of his esquires. In Milan he would have seen Sir John Hawkwood, the renowned English mercenary, who served the Lord of Milan. Chaucer would have been below his notice, however, even though he was well-known for writing many songs, mostly bawdy, about love. These were sung widely in England. This wasn’t the last time Chaucer was to visit Italy, and Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio were his greatest influences.

By the end of 1368, Lionel, still celebrating his marriage, was dead. It was said by some that he was killed on the orders of his father-in-law. Chaucer was able to move into the household of Lionel’s younger brother, John of Gaunt.

On 12 September 1368 Blanche, John of Gaunt’s wife, died of the plague, inspiring Chaucer’s first major work: The Book of the Duchess.

By 1369 the war with France was picking up again and Chaucer went there in John of Gaunt’s retinue. Chaucer was in France again the following year, although it’s not clear what he was doing.

By 1371 he was an esquire of the king’s chamber, Edward III’s inner household, and he was sent back to Italy in December 1372. He visited Genoa as part of a diplomatic and trading mission sent to negotiate with the Doge of Venice and to hire Genoese mercenaries for the war in France. There was another, secret, mission for the king in Florence. Chaucer carried this mission out alone and returned to England in May 1373.

On 23 April 1374 Edward III granted him a pitcher of wine a day for life. 23rd April is St. George’s Day and it was Edward III who adopted him as his own saint, leading to him becoming the patron saint of England. A few days later Chaucer was given a rent-free dwelling above the gate at Aldgate. Of the two, I suspect he appreciated the latter more. In June of that year he was appointed Comptroller of the Customs of Hides, Skins and Wools in the port of London. This would have been a lucrative position, since wool was England’s main export. I don’t know what Chaucer did to warrant all this preferment, but I like to think that it was a reward for concluding the king’s business successfully in Florence the year before.

Despite his new post, he was frequently in France in 1376 and 1377. On one of these visits he was a member of a diplomatic mission to negotiate a marriage between Richard of Bordeaux, Edward III’s grandson and heir, and Marie, daughter of the King of France.

In May 1378 he was negotiating for a different bride for Richard, now King of England, in Milan.  This time it was Caterina Visconti, the daughter of the Lord of Milan (not the same lord of Milan who had been Lionel’s father-in-law). Chaucer had another secret mission. He arrived in Milan in late June and stayed at least 6 weeks. He met John Hawkwood, this time as a valued representative of the king. It’s possible he read Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato on which Troilus and Criseyde is based while he was in Milan.

Another son, Lewis, was born in 1380. It was around this time that Chaucer wrote Parliament of Fowls, about birds choosing their mates. He also wrote Palamon and Aricite, which is the tale later told by the knight in The Canterbury Tales. Between 1381 and 1386 he wrote Troilus and Criseyde.

In the 1380s he had to get permission to appoint deputies to carry out his customs duties, presumably because he was so busy with his writing. By now he was also a member of Richard II’s household.

Philippa Chaucer died in 1387. About the same time Chaucer started work on The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer’s advancement in the civil service continued and on 12 July 1389 he was appointed Clerk of the King’s Works. This wasn’t an altogether happy experience, however. In September 1390 highwaymen stole his horse and the king’s money that he was carrying. He was robbed twice more before the end of the year. The following June he resigned from his position.

In 1391 he wrote A Treatise on the Astrolabe for his son, Lewis.

Information is sparse after this point.  On 24 Dec 1399, three months after the coronation of John of Gaunt’s son, Henry IV, Chaucer took a 53-year lease on a house in the precincts of Westminster Abbey. There’s no contemporary record of his death, but the date usually given for it is 25th October 1400.

I think you’ll agree that Chaucer’s life was pretty exciting. If we knew about his secret missions, it might be even more exciting.

 

Sources:

The Canterbury Tales edited by Jill Mann

Chronicles by Froissart

Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders

Richard II by Nigel Saul

 

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 Games Medieval People Played

1300_1320ManesseCodex_hawking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nine_Men's_Morris_board_with_coordinates.svg

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sources:

Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies

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

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

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The Reeve

reeve_and_serfs

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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Books and their Readers

Chained books

There was a growth in reading books through the fourteenth century in England. At the beginning of the century books were written in French or Latin, but English passages were included in them around the middle of the century. Educated people were taught Latin and French, but everyone spoke English. Towards the end of the century books started to appear that were written entirely in English. It wasn’t until then that English was considered a literary language and it was at this point that works by Langland, Gower, Chaucer and the Gawain Poet became available.

Unsurprisingly I read fiction set in the fourteenth century and I have come across too many novels in which books are treated as small, everyday objects. They weren’t; they were large and tremendously valuable. Someone had to be very wealthy to own even one. If you owned a book, no one else had one exactly the same.

I have occasionally read novels in which the heroine wafts into her bedroom where she had earlier left an unfinished book on the bed and picks it up to read, as if it were a  modern paperback. We’ll get on to reading in a moment, but books would not have been left lying around; they were far too valuable.

A book was written and illustrated by hand. Each page was made from animal skin prepared by hand. Once completed they had to be sewn together and bound by hand. Even in a labour-intensive age, the labour of making a book was immense and this made them expensive. If a private person owned a book it was more likely to be locked safely away in a chest than left out on display.

Mention of a library in a medieval house or even a castle in a historical novel always gives me pause when I’m reading. Very few wealthy people had many books. Edward III had about 340 books and his youngest son had about half that number. There is even a picture of Edward III receiving a book as a wedding gift. It was such an extravagant present that its giving was recorded.

In my own novels I’ve occasionally used books to show the wealth or aspirations of a character. In The Winter Love, for instance, Edward owns three books when we first meet him. He appears to be wealthy. When those books disappear and Edward denies ever having owned them it’s a sign to the reader that Edward’s fortunes have changed and that he might not be what he seemed at first.

Popular literature included treatises on warfare, hunting, histories and stories about King Arthur and the deeds of the Knights of the Round Table. There were also religious books: prayer books and sermons. Few individuals owned a complete Bible, although Edward II’s queen, Isabella, had one. Bibles were the province of cathedrals and monasteries. Not all priests could read, so it’s no surprise to learn that complete Bibles were rare in churches.

The greatest concentrations of books were in monasteries and abbeys, where they were often kept chained to the shelves. Books were sometimes inscribed with curses against anyone who had the temerity to steal them.

Reading, or being read to, was a communal activity. Books would be read aloud to the household gathered in the hall (the main room) of the house. Private reading didn’t mean that someone read a book themselves, but that the book was read to the lord and his family in the solar (their private room). Reading, save for study, was not a solitary occupation. Reading alone for any other reason was considered anti-social and odd.

As illustrated in this wonderful post by Erik Kwakkel books were so valuable that they were a target for thieves and their owners had to take measures to ensure that their books were kept safe and secure. The post is worth looking at for the pictures alone.

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