Tag Archives: Medieval

A bird in the hand…


Hunting in the Middle Ages was very much a male preserve, except in one area.  Women could attend a hunt on horseback, but they were usually there to flirt (or more) with the hunters, who were exclusively male. There was a great deal of sexual imagery used in writing about hunting and in some of the customs associated with it.

It was in hawking, however, that women found their own way to enjoy a hunt.

Hunting in the fourteenth century was not a sport, but a necessity. People hunted in order to eat. All strata of society hunted, from the king to the lowliest peasant. The main difference between them was that the king could hunt whatever he liked and wherever he liked, while the peasant was, in theory, very restricted, unless he was prepared to poach, which he usually was.

Hawking allowed women to show their riding skills without having to participate in the fast chase necessitated by hunting a stag. It was also much less bloody. It was the bird that made the kill, not the huntswoman. Aristocratic young women were expected to be able to hunt with birds in the same way that they were supposed to be able to play chess, tell stories, make witty conversation, sing and play a musical instrument. It was part of their education.

Ducks and herons were favourite prey for women. Their dogs would disturb them so that they flew up from the water and the huntswoman would loose her bird at them.

Hawking was tremendously expensive, so it was something that only the aristocracy could do properly, although lower classes could and did keep birds for hunting. The birds themselves cost a great deal and could travel a long way when they changed hands. They needed proper accommodation and training and exercise, which meant a falconer (usually very well paid) and his assistants had to be employed.

The birds most used in England were peregrines, merlins and hobbies. They were called ‘hawks of the fist’, because they were trained to return to the fist of the hunter instead of to a lure (something designed to make the bird think it was prey, usually a piece of meat and some feathers). The lure would be swung to make the bird think it was in flight and she would try to catch it. These were also used in training the birds. Merlins were generally considered suitable birds for women. Female birds were used by both men and women, as they are larger than the males.

Rosamunde, the heroine of my novel His Ransom is clearly an aristocratic young woman who likes to hunt. Before her betrothed went to fight in France she joined him in a stag hunt, and a hawking expedition later in the novel leads her into great danger.

It’s difficult to overstate how important hunting was in the Middle Ages. For many it was the difference between life and death.




Filed under Fourteenth Century

Garrison Duty


The hero of my current work in progress has just been assigned to garrison duty in a castle in Aquitaine. Why is he less than thrilled at the prospect and what’s in store for him?

Stephen is a knight and has spent most of his life training to fight on horseback in large battles. Garrison duty means being enclosed within the walls of a castle or town for months at a time. He has been used to raiding the French, but now he has to wait for them to come to him and possibly besiege the castle.

Life in a garrison was fairly dull for a knight. There would be training, of course. It was essential for a knight to retain or improve his skills every day. This would include practising with swords, maces and axes. Practising with spears was also a necessity. The knight would ride his horse towards a target and hit it with the spear in order to improve his aim. He would also have to scale ladders in full armour, so anything that increased his strength or his stamina would be useful.

The castle to which Stephen is sent is in the east of Aquitaine, near the border with France. It’s possible that the castle will be besieged by the French. If the castle were besieged, a knight might persuade his commander to allow him to lead a sally outside the walls. These were occasionally very successful actions where a large force would leave the castle and attack the besiegers, sometimes causing so much harm that the besiegers would leave. Sometimes they were complete disasters, with members of besiegers’ army mingling with the besieged, entering the castle with them when they returned, and taking it from within.

A knight like Stephen could expect to be taken for ransom rather than killed if the castle had to surrender. It’s the summer of 1357 and he’s become very wealthy from taking part in two chevauchées (long range raids) with the Black Prince and he’s also the son of an earl. He would be a good prize. The men serving with him would not be so fortunate. If they escaped with their lives they would be lucky. It’s quite common for the ordinary soldiers in a garrison to be mutilated in some way, perhaps by having their noses sliced with a knife, or their eyes put out, or their hands and feet cut off. They might simply be killed. All of this would serve as a warning for the next place the besiegers went to.

As an Englishman in France, Stephen might decide to make some money by terrorising the surrounding towns and villages. This was a common practice among the English garrisons in Brittany, where there weren’t always the funds to pay for the garrisons upkeep. They demanded a ‘patis’ (protection money) in order to leave their neighbours alone. This wasn’t simply a way of raising money, it was also a way of showing who was in charge.

Garrison duty also provided many opportunities for a soldier to spend the money he had earned or looted. Because castles provided some form of protection, people tended to build towns around them ,and towns attracted markets and wealth. There would be goods from distant lands to purchase, taverns to drink and gamble in, and brothels to frequent. There would be skilled craftsmen offering their goods for sale: goldsmiths, embroiders, armourers, tentmakers, apothecaries (medieval pharmacists), potters, furniture makers, basket weavers and so on. There would be plenty of distractions for a bored soldier to buy.

It will take a strong man to resist these temptations and Stephen doesn’t know yet which ones he’ll have to face.


Filed under Fourteenth Century

The Secrets of the Castle DVD: A review


The Secrets of the Castle is the latest in the TV series about everyday (mainly farming) life in previous centuries presented by Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold (replacing Alex Langlands who has been studying for a doctorate). I’ve been watching them since the first series, Tales from the Green Valley in 2006, which was about running a farm the Jacobean way and which remains my favourite of the farming ones. The other series are A Tudor Feast at Christmas (2006), Victorian Farm (2009), Edwardian Farm (2010), Wartime Farm (2012) and Tudor Monastery Farm (2013).

This time they are not farming, but building a castle and they’re not doing it on their own. Guédelon is the world’s biggest archaeological experiment. It is a twenty-five year project to build a castle in Burgundy using thirteenth century methods. It is staffed by craftsmen and craftswomen and students. They work in seasons, March to September, as their thirteenth century counterparts would have done. As Peter says, the castle is the by-product; it’s the ‘chantier’, the building site, that is the reason for the project as those working there rediscover medieval methods.

It’s a lengthy project, taking longer to build the modern castle than it would have taken in the thirteenth century. This is partly because there are very few written records about how castles were built, so many of the early days were spent working out how things were done.

The team joined the project in its seventeenth season, so much of the castle has already been built. It would not have made such good television if they had gone much earlier, for they were able to take part in some very interesting work, such as making the parts for and putting together a tracery window, painting one of the private rooms and cooking in the kitchen. They were also there when the water mill was first put into use.

The craftsmen and women that we see are carpenters, masons, woodcutters, wood turners, rope makers, builders, potters, blacksmiths, bowyers, tilers, quarrymen, miller and dyers. The overall effect is to show the amount of physical labour required for even the simplest of tasks. There are many surprises: only two quarrymen are required to support the site and everything is designed on the wooden floor of the tracing room and there’s not a sheet of paper in sight.

On the domestic front Ruth shows how to turn a hovel into a home. Lesson one is to cover the earth floor with rushes so that you don’t sleep on a damp floor and lesson two is to hang your food in a net from the ceiling so that the mice don’t get it. Then the potter has to make her some pots, both to cook with and to eat and drink from. Then the carpenter has to make her a grain ark for storing grain and for making bread. We later see it being put to this use by Tom, rather unsuccessfully. We also learn that pig fat keeps your hands smooth when you’re working with lime, but makes every dog on the site your friend.

There is an expedition to see a trebuchet being fired – truly terrifying- and another to glimpse the interior of St Mary Magdalene, Vézelay, the inspiration for a black and white arch in the castle. This visit also includes a very brief examination of the medieval idea of pilgrimage, which is a bit of an obsession of mine at the moment.

The animals around the site also get a look in. There are pigs, horses, chickens, ducks and some very sleek and handsome cockerels.

There were two great revelations in this DVD for me. The first is rather obvious, so it should not have been a revelation. Most castles we see today are ruins and open to the elements and have bare interior walls. When they were first built, the walls would have been plastered and painted. This would have had the effect of making the rooms lighter. The second, more surprising revelation, was that the outsides of the castles were lime washed so that they would be white and therefore more visible, thus impressing, or striking terror, into anyone who saw it. Everything about a castle was designed to impress, either because its function was to cow those around it into submission or to defend part of the realm, or because it was demonstrating the wealth and ambition of the lord who built it.

I have enjoyed this DVD very much. It’s informative and quite cosy, although clearly some of the participants are a bit overwhelmed by Ruth’s enthusiasm. I watched the series when it was on television at the end of last year and enjoyed it just as much watching it again in the last month. I shall doubtless watch it again my times in the future.

The DVD was released in January and is made up of five one hour episodes, with a short discussion between the producer and the site administrator at Guédelon as the special feature. It’s narrated by Paul McGann, which is a huge bonus if you like his voice, as I do.

The site at Guédelon is open to visitors between March and September. The website is here. There are tours in English in July and August.

You can follow the project on Twitter @GuedelonCastle

This is a link to an amusing animation showing how the project came into being here.


Filed under Castle, DVD Review, Thirteenth Century