Tag Archives: Joan of England

Medieval Pins

Mike Walker, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In a comment about last week’s post Shaunn Munn mentioned pins, because you can’t think about needles without thinking of pins. I couldn’t find any references to pins being used in making clothes, although I assume that they (or something similar) must have been. It’s difficult to imagine someone sewing long seams (and some of them were very long) without something to hold the two pieces of fabric together. What I did find, though, was something interesting about fourteenth-century fashion.

Pins were originally large, ornamented and very visible. Their large, decorated heads drew attention and they were used to fasten outer garments in the same way as brooches were. In the twelfth century a development in metal production (please don’t ask me what it was, as I have no idea and wouldn’t understand it if I did) meant that drawn wire was available and pins with narrow shafts could be made. By the fourteenth century they had become very fine, which was useful, as women of fashion needed pins that were next to invisible.

Women used pins to keep the folds of their headdresses in place, or to attach their veils to their hair or the front of their gowns, and they wanted the shafts to be more or less invisible. What was the point of having a veil that was more or less transparent if you only had thick pins with large heads to attach it? The veil and the headdress were supposed to be the stars, not the pins holding them in place.

The use of pins took off in the fourteenth century. When Joan of England, a daughter of Edward III, set sail to marry Pedro of Castile in 1348 she took 12,000 pins for her veils with her. Sadly, the groom was never to see the veils or the pins or his bride, for she caught bubonic plague in Bordeaux and was one of its first English victims.

Even when used in headdresses and veils some of the pins had decorative heads, a coral bead, for example, or basic geometric designs. Most pinheads, however, were either solid metal or made of wound wire. They could be formed into a variety of shapes, although most of them resembled the pins of my youth in that they had heads shaped like tiny mushroom caps. The heads were beaten into shape by a hammer. Some formed spheres, others were flattened, both vertically and horizontally to the pin.

No one’s quite sure whether pins were manufactured in England, but there’s plenty of evidence that they were used here in their hundreds of thousands.

Dress Accessories 1150 – 1450 by Geoff Egan and Frances Pritchard

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:





Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Clothing

Ten Things You Didn’t Know About The Black Death

Black Death in Bed

Today is this blog’s first anniversary, so I thought I would return to the ever popular subject of the Black Death. Regular readers will know that I’m ever so slightly obsessed with the Black Death, and I haven’t posted about it for a while. What comes after is not for the faint of heart.

The following are ten things that most people don’t know about the Black Death:

1. It wasn’t called the Black Death

The plague that hit Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century was not called the Black Death until much later. The name arose because of the way that parts of the victim’s bodies became blackened due to gangrene and necrosis. At the time, people called it far more expressive things, such as the Big Death or the Great Death. Personally, I find these far more terrifying names than the Black Death.

2. It was caused by gerbils

There is still a lot of debate about how the Black Death was started and how it spread. Rats and their fleas are still the favoured cause, although there were no rats in Iceland at the time and Iceland did not escape the Black Death. Recent research has indicated that the plague might have originated in gerbils in Asia. There’s an article on the BBC website  which talks about this.

3. It wasn’t always fatal

Some of those infected did survive: about a third of them. It’s not known exactly why they recovered.

4. There were three different manifestations

There wasn’t just one form of plague, but three. The three types are bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic. There is constant debate about this as well, with many researchers believing that the fourteenth century plague was not bubonic, because mortality rates would have been much lower than they seem to have been, even allowing for the probable exaggerations of the medieval chroniclers.

Bubonic plague took three days to a week to kill the infected person. It is this type that we most associate with the Black Death since it was the most common. Buboes (large pus-filled swellings) appeared in the armpit, neck, groin and upper thigh. Bubonic plague was spread by fleas. It was the least virulent form and had the highest survival rate, although ‘highest’ is a relative term here.

Pneumonic plague was the most virulent, but rarest form. It was a respiratory infection spread by coughs and sneezes. Once people were infected they were usually dead within thirty-six hours. Survival rates were less than ten percent.

Septicaemic plague resulted in uncontrolled bleeding. It was spread by exposure to another plague victim and fewer than one in a hundred who were infected survived.

5. It entered England through Melcombe Regis

It’s now fairly certain that the Black Death came into England via Melcombe Regis, brought by sailors from Gascony. Melcombe Regis is on the south coast and is now part of Weymouth. In the fourteenth century it was a significant port.

6. It wasn’t just a one-off occurrence

The initial occurrence of the plague in Europe was between 1347 and 1352, but it didn’t just disappear after that. It returned to England in 1361–62, 1369, 1379–83, 1389–93. There were also recurrences through the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries culminating in the Great Plague of 1665. There have been other occurrences into the twenty-first century in other parts of the world. There is a lot of debate as to whether or not all the manifestations of plague since the fourteenth century have been the same plague.

7.  An English royal princess was a victim

One of Edward III’s daughters, Joan, was on her way to marry Pedro, the heir to the Castilian throne when she was infected. This is the same Pedro who was later aided by Joan’s older brother, the Black Prince, in his fight to regain his throne from his brother. Joan was only fourteen when she died near Bordeaux in 1348. Edward III wrote a very moving letter when he received news of her death. Medieval parents have often been accused of being unfeeling about their children, in part because of the large number they tended to have, but also because life was so precarious that they would always be grieving if they allowed themselves to love their children. There is no doubt that Edward III loved his many children and he and his wife grieved when they lost them.

8. Its victims were once compared to lasagne

In a particularly evocative passage from his chronicle, Marco di Coppo Stefani compares the way in which the dead were buried in Florence with the way in which a lasagne was made. In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shoveled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.

9. It could travel one mile a day

This rather surprising fact makes many researchers question the traditionally accepted methods of transmitting the plague and even whether or not the Black Death was really bubonic plague. Modern outbreaks of bubonic plague have travelled much slower, even with modern transportation methods. An outbreak in India at the end of the nineteenth century (from 1896 to the mid-1920s) travelled on average only fifteen metres a week, despite the availability of trains and motor cars.

10.  Some places were spared

A large area around Milan seems to have been spared, as was a lot of Europe east of Krakow and an area north of the Pyrenees. In many countries small areas were unaffected, but there’s no real understanding of why this was.



Filed under Black Death, Fourteenth Century